Rapid Prototyping: A New Way of Thinking

Rapid Prototyping

We live in exciting times! Technology is moving so fast these days that it’s sometimes hard to keep up. The last 20 years or so have seen a massive shift in the way we live and work. And technology is also changing the way we manufacture.

There inevitably comes a point in the product development cycle, when you need to produce prototypes. CAD software is great, and you can perform all kinds of virtual simulation and analysis these days, but sometimes you need a physical sample. It’s hard to get a feel for ergonomics and usability without having something in front of you.

Not so long ago, that would probably have meant producing foam mock-ups by hand, or else using traditional manufacturing processes such as injection moulding or casting; processes that are often both costly and time-consuming. Then, if something was wrong, you’d have to start all over again. But, these days, we’ve got all sorts of options. Let’s have a brief look at three of the most popular.

3D Printing

3D printing has become a generic term for what is more correctly known as additive manufacturing; however, 3D printing is one of several processes used, depending on part requirements. It’s a big deal these days and something lots of people are talking about. Essentially, it allows 3D CAD models to be produced from a digital file. The 3D printer works by laying down successive layers of material to build the part; each layer constituting a very thin cross-section of the finished part. It’s quick, relatively cheap and is ideal for producing prototype parts. Modern printers commonly produce parts with an accuracy of around +/-0.1mm, depending on the part size.

There are many materials available, including plastics, rubbers and even metals.

This technology is used to produce parts for all sorts of applications including consumer, automotive, medical and aerospace. Similar technology may soon be used to print houses and even human organs in the not-to-distant future!


Unlike 3D printing which progressively adds material to produce the finished part, milling involves the removal of material from a solid block using rotary cutters. This may be done in varying directions depending on the machine used. Milling is generally costlier than 3D printing, but typically produces a higher level of accuracy and finish quality. An accuracy of around +/- 0.05mm is often achievable for milled parts.

This process can be used to produce parts from a variety of metals and plastics.

Vacuum Casting

Vacuum casting offers a cost-effective way to produce plastic moulded parts without the need for expensive tooling. Firstly, a master part is produced using one of the above processes. This is then used to produce a silicone rubber mould from which multiple plastic parts can be made. The resulting parts closely resemble production quality items in terms of both material and finish.

Each silicone tool can produce around 25 parts; however, a new tool can easily be produced from the master part if required.

An accuracy of around +/-0.1mm is generally achievable for vacuum cast parts, depending on the size of the part.

Over to you

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