What is rapid prototyping? Wikipedia says it “is the automatic construction of physical objects using solid freeform fabrication.” Confused? Well, unless you’re an engineer, you may have no idea what that means.
Remember those Mold-A-Rama machines? You would stick in a quarter and watch the machine pump plastic into a mold, and then it would spit out colorful, 3D models of lions, rhinos, gorillas, tigers, dinosaurs and or even an Abraham Lincoln bust?
Yeah? Well picture that in your mind when thinking of rapid prototyping – sans the burning plastic smell of course. Rapid prototyping is similar in concept. It takes an idea and spits out a 3D image of that same idea. It’s a great resource for those who need to see their idea in reality before going to production. Some say rapid prototyping machines are the machines that can copy anything.
Rapid Prototyping is used for production parts, models, prototypes, and even artists use them for sculpting. Rapid prototyping is used heavily in the automobile industry and with various consumer products. It’s also used for aerospace, business machines, medical equipment, engine parts, architecture scale models, academic reasons, and in the government and military.
Rapid prototyping today is done through printers. These printers will take a digital image, usually from CAD (computer aided design) or some other animation software, and basically scans the design then prints an actual 3D prototype of that image – something you can feel and touch – not unlike the Mold-A-Rama machines. Designers can get a better grasp on their ideas and catch errors quickly, thus, reducing costs by making changes to designs early on.
Unlike the Mold-A-Rama, the rapid prototyping copiers don’t just use plastic and they can make copies of much more than animals. They utilize many materials to create almost any shape and size.
What about large models, you ask? How does a relative small rapid prototyping printer make copy an image and print of a life-sized model of a car? Good question. Large models are usually printed in smaller segments. After they are printed off, the designer will put them together to see the whole picture.
The Mold-A-Ramas could finish its plastic animals and the busts of United State presidents’ faces in just a few minutes. In comparison, however, rapid prototyping is not nearly as quick. Depending on the model’s size and complex design, and the machine’s functionality, rapid prototyping can take a few hours to a few days.
There are a lot of competing technologies. The differences are in the way they build or create parts. Some use melting and softening to create parts. Others use liquids and are cured with myriad technologies.
3D rapid prototyping printers are becoming more common. There are some small ones that can fit into an office. They are priced at $15,000-$25,000. But don’t’ get them confused with Rapid Prototyping machines. 3D rapid prototyping printers’ range of materials is very limited. Rapid Prototyping machines are typically more accurate and usually produce better finishes. Rapid prototyping machines cost $45,000 and up.