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Paul T Kidd's Rapid Prototyping Technologies Pages

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What are Rapid Prototyping Technologies?

What are Rapid Prototyping Technologies?


Rapid prototyping processes are a relatively recent development. The first machine was released onto the market in late 1987. While rapid prototyping is the term commonly applied to these technologies the terminology is now a little dated, reflecting the purpose to which the early machines were applied. A more accurate description would be layer manufacturing processes. An alternative term is free-form fabrication processes.

These processes work by building up a component layer by layer, with one thin layer of material bonded to the previous thin layer. There are several different processes. The main ones are:


laser sintering;

fused deposition modelling;

solid ground curing; and

laminated object manufacturing.

In addition there are a number of newer processes, such as ballistic particle manufacturing and three-dimensional printing, which have appeared on the market.

All these processes essentially start with nothing and end with a completed part. This is in contrast to conventional manufacturing processes such as milling machines that start from a solid block of a substance and cut material away to form the finished part.

Rapid prototyping processes are driven by instructions which are derived from three-dimensional computer-aided design (CAD) models. CAD technologies are therefore an essential enabling system for rapid prototyping.

The processes use different physical principles, but essentially they work either by using lasers to cut, cure or sinter material into a layer, or involve ejecting material from a nozzle to create a layer. Many different materials are used, depending upon the particular process. Materials include thermopolymers, photopolymers, other plastics, paper, wax, metallic powder, etc.

The application of these processes is not restricted to supporting new product development activities C they can also be used to create production tooling. They can therefore be used to support one-off or small batch production runs. Thus the processes can be used to create models, tooling, prototypes, and even in some cases to directly produce metal components.

Many rapid prototyping technologies actually produce physical models. These models are then used to produce tooling using an indirect secondary process such as investment casting. The resulting tool is then used to manufacture a component. However, new processes are beginning to appear that allow the tooling to be manufactured directly from the computer model, thus eliminating the physical model production stage. In the future it is likely to be possible to manufacture components directly from the computer model, eliminating the need to produce physical models and tooling first, although these may still be required for other purposes.

The important point to understand is that, while rapid prototyping started out as an expensive tool for producing physical models for design engineers to visualise their component designs, this is now no longer an accurate description of the technologies or their application potential.

The potential different applications of rapid prototyping technologies span the complete product life cycle from concept generation, through preparation of specifications and detailed design, to manufacture.

Two further points. First, rapid prototyping technologies address the area of prototyping mechanical devices, components, housings, etc. and not software or electronic components. Second, rapid prototyping technologies are often used instead of conventional manufacturing processes such as five axis milling machines. However, there are situations when the two are used in combination to produce prototypes. Sometimes, however, components are simple enough to be quickly and cost-effectively prototyped using conventional methods C in other words there are situations in which rapid prototyping processes offer no time or cost advantages over conventional technologies.

Further information about the processes and associated technologies is given in Chapter 7 of the Management Report. Links to vendors' web site are provided elsewhere on this web site.



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