With rapid prototyping (RP) constituting the bulk of all 3D printing applications, we at Axis Prototypes thought it would be a good idea to spell out why RP has become so attractive among manufacturers, laboratories, and product marketing companies. To confirm what we already knew about the benefits of RP, we interviewed engineers and industrial designers at two of our clients in North America and asked them how rapid prototyping has played a critical component in their product development cycles.
Our client, a maker of Japanese-style Bento lunchboxes which store food in translucent pre-portioned trays, continuously engages in minor design changes to improve their product’s handling and operability (e.g., opening and closing of the lids) while minimizing impact on size and weight. And once every three or four years, the company tests new styles and sizes to keep up with design trends. Whether it involved unnoticeable design tweaks or complete product makeovers, the client was able to review, test and get feedback on design changes with a functional, dimensionally accurate prototype. With rapid prototyping, you can “measure twice, cut once”, as it affords the design freedom to experiment and run multiple product iterations before going to market.
With a prototype, one is able to see how it holds over time and in different environments, assuming it is printed with the same material, surface finishing and dimensions as the final version. For example, the parts we printed for an SLA prototype of an unmanned submersible sonar vehicle were tested under high water pressure as well as in warm to very cold temperatures. If a prototype exhibits signs of weakness in a simulated or real-world environment, engineers and design managers can quickly rectify the issue right off the CAD drawing.
Printing a prototype via additive manufacturing will cost a company significantly less than if it were produced via tool-based manufacturing methods like casting or injection molding. The savings can be passed onto consumers in the form of lower prices, funnelled towards product development and/or marketing, or kept as an added profit for the company. Whatever the case, rapid prototypes represent a high return on investment.
Showcasing a new product on screen or on paper won’t do it justice, as most buyers are inherently “tire kickers” who like to touch and feel finished products. What better way to evaluate a product than to have the real or near-real thing in your hands? A prototype that can emulate the structural, aesthetical and textural attributes of the final product is a powerful selling tool that static images or animated demos cannot match.
As mentioned earlier, with additive manufacturing, industrial designers are afforded the freedom to make multiple design changes to a product before it is realized in tangible form. As such, designers are encouraged to experiment with new concept ideas that could potentially translate into a competitive edge for their employer. By combining the flexibility of making rapid design changes through a CAD file with the relatively low-cost production of prototypes, more ideas can come to fruition in the marketplace, benefiting both suppliers and consumers.