Rapid prototyping is a technique that enables companies to quickly and effectively create prototypes of products.
The idea behind rapid prototyping is to fast-build something instead of spending a lot of time planning and designing it in the beginning. It’s great for startups who need an MVP (minimum viable product) to test their idea with customers. It also works well for established companies that want to try out new ideas without wasting revenue.
With this method, rapid prototyping services use computer-aided design (CAD) tools to mock up an idea. They’ll then go back in after getting feedback from their stakeholders to make changes as needed.
Learn more about rapid prototyping and a few examples by reading on.
What Is Rapid Prototyping?
If you’ve never heard of it before, you might wonder, “What is rapid prototyping?”
If you want a basic rapid prototyping definition, rapid prototyping is a set of techniques that engineers use to fabricate a scale model of a physical good. In nearly all cases, they’ll use a 3D computer-aided design.
As its name implies, rapid prototyping is a process that enables designers to create prototypes quickly. It allows them to simulate the future state of a product.
Prototypes are a convenient tool for designers, investors and consumers. They enable companies to communicate and validate design concepts.
With rapid prototyping, project managers, engineers and end-users can share ideas. You can even use rapid prototyping to share ideas with other designers.
Typically, designers create rapid prototypes using one of several additive manufacturing techniques. For example, a designer might use rapid prototyping 3D printing.
These prototypes fall under two broad categories—high-fidelity and low-fidelity prototypes. A high-fidelity prototype matches the actual product as much as possible. Conversely, a low-fidelity prototype is clearly different and less complex than the final product.
A Few Types of Rapid Prototyping Methods
There are many different manufacturing technologies for rapid prototyping. The most commonly used rapid prototyping method is additive manufacturing.
However, there are other techniques available for this process. These techniques include:
• High-speed CNC machining
There are also further processes within the different methods of additive manufacturing. Designers might use a combination of these practices to build a rapid prototype. These additional prototyping processes might include:
• Binder jetting
• Digital light processing (DLP)
• Fused deposition modeling (FDM)
• Laminated object manufacturing (LOM)
• Selective laser melting (SLM)
• Selective laser sintering (SLS)
• Stereolithography (SLA)
The following entries offer a closer look at the more well-known prototyping methods.
During the subtractive prototyping process, the designer slices chunks of material. For instance, they may create a form by grinding, turning or milling material.
The compressive prototyping process involves altering a semi-solid or liquid material before it hardens. This kind of process might include casting, compressive sintering or molding.
Stereolithography (SLA) is an additive manufacturing process. You may also hear this process called photopolymerization.
SLA is fast and affordable. In fact, it’s one of the first methods of 3D printing.
SLA involves using a vat of photosensitive liquid. Layer by layer, designers will turn the liquid into a solid. During the process, they’ll guide a computer-controlled ultraviolet light to create the prototype.
The SLA process is irreversible. The parts created by the process will not revert back to liquid or a semi-solid state.
Selective Laser Sintering (SLS)
Selective laser sintering is another additive manufacturing process. Typically, designers will use SLS for creating metal or plastic prototypes.
It involves using layers of powder to create an end product. Rapid prototyping services will also use a high-powered laser to create heat. It will heat, or sinter, the powder material.
SLS prototypes are weaker than their SLA counterparts. However, the cost of producing an SLA prototype is lower.
Also, SLA prototyping requires less time and labor. At the same time, however, it’s highly productive.
In addition, the surface of a finished SLA prototype is rough. As a result, it takes more work to complete the final prototype, such as polishing or honing.
Selective Laser Melting (SLM)
You may also hear designers refer to SLM as powder bed fusion (PBF). SLM is a favorite technique among designers.
The process is relatively inexpensive. Also, it enables designers to create high-strength, complex parts. The technique is often used by designers in the automotive, aerospace, medical and defense industries for this reason.
The Benefits of Rapid Prototyping
Today, teamwork is important in nearly any field—and prototyping is no exception. Rapid prototyping is more conducive to communication between developers and designers.
It helps designers to test products quickly. What’s more, it enables them to iterate on many design ideas and techniques.
With rapid prototyping, designers can use more intuitive design materials. These prototypes make a much more powerful statement compared to verbal descriptions.
In doing so, they ensure that all stakeholders have the same understanding of a project.
In most cases, rapid prototyping reduces or even completely eliminates important oversights. Moreover, the process is much faster than creating prototypes manually.
You’ll Save Time and Money
With rapid prototyping, designers can get feedback as fast as possible. This information enables them to improve their final designs effectively. It also reduces the need to make changes during development, increasing productivity.
Early in the design process, rapid prototyping saves on costs and time. However, it helps to save costs in other ways.
For example, other project stakeholders don’t waste time developing related systems based on faulty design specifications.
Also, rapid prototyping enables companies to test products quickly. It’s an affordable method of creating a product that’s as close to the real thing as possible before sending it for manufacturing.
Because rapid prototyping is so fast, it enables designers to make iterations and design ideas quickly. For instance, a designer can easily change the materials that they use for their prototype.
Again, rapid prototyping frees designers from the need to rely solely on verbal descriptions and drawings. The ability to work with a physical prototype enables designers to better understand the intent of a product. For these reasons, rapid prototyping is much faster and efficient compared to other methods.
Getting Started With Rapid Prototyping
Like any product, rapid prototyping starts with an idea or concept. Brainstorming is the best way to build a profile for a new product.
During brainstorming, failure is inevitable. However, that’s the point of brainstorming. It enables project managers to work through ideas—both good and bad.
It’s a safe, low-cost way to start a design project. By working through their many ideas, project managers can save time and money before investing in the development of a prototype.
Once they work through all the ideas, project managers can requisition a low-fidelity prototype to reflect what they think is the best concept for their new product.
In the early stages of prototyping, it’s unnecessary and unwise to get hung up on small details. Instead, it’s better to work on intricate details once a project manager has more confidence in a design. In the beginning, however, it’s better to work with a low-fidelity prototype.
Here, designers will make use of prototyping tools with strong collaboration features. These tools will allow designers and clients to share their feedback on a potential design.
Once everyone’s settled on a design, it’s time to start evaluating the high-fidelity prototype. The designers will later share their high-fidelity prototypes with users to solicit their feedback.
Working Through the Process
Now, designers will focus on finding parts of the high-fidelity prototype that need improvement. They’ll also look for areas that need more refinement. Designers will base their assumptions on the feedback that they’ve received from users.
Typically, the prototyping process starts with fleshing out the key processes of the end product. Then, the prototype will go through refinement.
As this takes place, the details will become more complex. Eventually, the designer can complete and deliver a final concept for prototype development.
Testing a Rapid Prototype
If you want genuine feedback about a prototype, users should not know that they’re not assessing the real product. You lose an advantage once testers find out that there evaluating a prototype.
They intrinsically switch to “suggestion mode.” Instead, you want their authentic reactions.
These are the reactions that will serve as a true test of a prototype’s viability. Accordingly, you’ll need a usable, fully functioning prototype at this stage—even if it’s missing a couple of features. In other words, it’s important that a high-fidelity prototype appears and behaves like the real thing.
It takes a few things to make this happen. First, teams must think through all the use cases that test subjects may pursue while using the prototype. Next, experts must weigh in on potential solutions for those use cases.
With this information, the designers can create a high-fidelity prototype. In other words, a high-fidelity prototype isn’t something that designers can whip together after a few brainstorming sessions.
In some cases, it’s too expensive or too soon to build out a high-fidelity prototype. In that case, the designers might use a standard technique such as wireframing to start the project.
Working With the Final Prototype
Rapid prototyping enables product managers to fast-forward to real-world customer feedback. At the same time, it enables them to avoid spending limited development resources on untested and unproven concepts.
With a rapid prototype, ideas are no longer just an idea. It’s a physical object that companies can use to test with real users.
This kind of feedback is invaluable for creating goods that match users’ needs. More importantly, rapid prototyping shortens the time to market for new goods.
It also helps project managers discover concept flaws early in the development process. In this way, rapid prototyping allows design teams to move forward with confidence.
They know that their product will meet users’ needs. If not, they can easily go back to the drawing board to develop a better idea.
Again, rapid prototyping is an iterative process. Furthermore, there’s a short turnaround time from one iteration to the next.
For this reason, design teams must stay ready to implement input from project managers and testers. They must spin out prototypes quickly so that companies can analyze usage and feedback. With a speedy team, designers and project managers can create dynamic products that focus on what consumers need most.
Doing Amazing Things With Rapid Prototypes
Rapid prototyping enables engineers and designers to see a complete view of how a final product will appear and work. Moreover, it allows them to do so early in the design process.
This capability enables teams to make alterations and improvements in the early stages of design. This benefit is a big money and timesaver.
It can take anywhere from days to months to complete a rapid prototype. For the most part, the length of time it takes to complete a prototype depends on the additive manufacturing technique. Still, rapid prototyping is more cost-effective and precise than a designer could ever hope to achieve using manual prototyping processes.
Stay in the Know About the Latest Tech
Now you know more about rapid prototyping and a few techniques involved in the process.
Rapid prototyping is a great way to find out what works and what doesn’t before committing too much time or money to a product. Companies can use it in many different fields. With what you’ve learned, you might even think about trying rapid prototyping for yourself!
Engineers are always coming up with amazing innovations. If you want to learn more about them, check out our technology section for more insightful stories about their latest remarkable creations.