Editorial Feature

An Introduction to Rapid Prototyping

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Besides cost and quality, time-to-market is becoming a progressively critical factor for the success of a product. A key contributor to product development cycles is the time required to make prototypes.

Moreover, in markets where customers are expecting exclusively customized components, the time and cost to make molds or tools can be significant.

Benefits of Rapid Prototyping

Rapid Prototyping (RP), also called Solid Freeform Fabrication (SFF), builds intricate shapes through additive processes, creating components without the use of instruments.

Over the last few years, several studies have shown the potential advantages offered by RP:

  • Components can be manufactured without using dedicated tools
  • Small quantities of parts can be produced at competitive costs
  • Component geometries can be made that otherwise cannot be produced by traditional fabrication methods
  • Composition within the part can be varied, resulting in tailor-made properties through the component volume

Currently, SFF processes are not completely developed for industrial applications, as they are comparatively slow, usually requiring a day to create a component. Yet, they have been shown to be effective in minimizing the high cost and lead-time involved in the production of ceramic prototypes, thus making unique or short-run ceramic products ready for the market.

In the future, scientists believe that SFF methods will be used for high-volume production of ceramics once high-speed, prototyping machines are built.

How Do They Work?

SFF processes work in fundamentally the same way. Beginning with a model of the component as a Computer-Aided Design (CAD) file, software splits the object into a series of thin slices, piled on top of one another.

Using this information, commercial RP machines slowly and accurately add material, recreating the individual layers and eventually the component. Therefore, contrary to traditional machining processes that eliminate excess material, RP techniques are additive.

Rapid Prototyping Techniques

A majority of SFF methods are based on current commercial RP systems:

  • Photolithography
  • Lamination modeling
  • Filament extrusion
  • Laser fusion
  • Inkjet methods

Within these groups, several variants may exist that vary marginally.

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