Understanding Rapid Prototyping with 3D Printing

#Nov 08, 2023

Effective prototyping is an important part of the product lifecycle. Through continuous iterations of testing and improvement, engineers can arrive at a final part design that works with the desired features and performance.

The first commercially available 3D printers gave birth to the concept of rapid prototyping. Before 3D printing, long lead times and the high costs of low-volume parts meant that product development teams could only iterate part designs a few times before they needed to be completed.

However, 3D printing has reduced these long lead times and costs. Now 3D printers allow engineers and R&D teams to validate their designs faster, easier and more cost-effectively than ever before. Ultimately, this allows for more design iterations to be squeezed into a given time frame; teams can achieve final part designs sooner and bring approved products to market faster.

While the market is flooded with printers suitable for prototyping, the emergence of industrial-scale additive manufacturing is providing lead time and cost advantages far beyond PLA models. Industrial 3D printers now produce everything from tooling to custom end-use parts at the point of need in just a few days.

Even as 3D printing expands into more end-use applications, rapid prototyping remains an effective way for manufacturers to improve product development.

What is rapid prototyping?

Prototyping is an integral part of product design and engineering. Achieving an optimized, test-proven design is an iterative process.
Engineers design an initial concept model of a part or product to be tested. He or she will then produce a part with the provisional design (prototype), put it through a series of tests, and then evaluate the design for positive aspects and areas for improvement. These activities will be repeated to reach the final approved design that meets the desired customer and engineering requirements.
Rapid prototyping is the use of digital technologies to design and manufacture prototypes faster and easier. Rapid prototyping typically relies on 3D printing technologies to quickly fabricate prototypes because it eliminates the need to use tooling or die sets. Rapid prototyping includes engineering activities such as design, modification, and testing beyond the physical production of prototypes.
Before rapid prototyping, engineers had to rely on a combination of foam mock-ups and detailed clay models crafted by skilled craftsmen. This meant much longer lead times for the production of each prototype and higher production costs associated with each prototype part.

How does rapid prototyping work?

Rapid prototyping begins with creating a computer-aided design (CAD) file of the part. The user can then import the design file of the part into the 3D printer software.
At the end of the printing process, the prototype part will be ready for subsequent testing, evaluation and modifications.
When prototyping with additive manufacturing on an industrial scale, users replace prototype plastics such as PLA with higher-strength materials.

Rapid prototyping and 3D printing

Defines the picture

The official definition of 3D printing is a manufacturing process that uses layer-by-layer fabrication to transform digital CAD files into tangible objects. Rapid prototyping is one of many use cases for 3D printing.

Contemporary use

Today, the term rapid prototyping is mainly associated with the old era of 3D printers. These early printers could not provide sufficient part strength or quality for higher volume production applications. This limited their use to prototyping. Many of the earlier printers were marketed as rapid prototyping solutions, thus branding 3D printing as a rapid prototyping technology until the last decade. As a result, the two terms have often been confused, and “rapid prototyping” has become a popular misnomer for “3D printing.”

The emergence of additive manufacturing

Today, the commonly used term “additive manufacturing” refers to a paradigm shift in 3D printing. The term typically describes the use of 3D printing for high-value industrial applications such as performance-critical end-use parts.

Benefits of rapid prototyping with 3D printing

Shorter lead times

Prototypes using traditional manufacturing methods require new tools and/or additional processes such as drafting drawings, submitting POs, and dealing with shipping times. Without in-house 3D printing, it could take weeks or months to supply each prototype.
Faster lead times not only eliminate impatience, they also provide tangible business benefits. Companies can innovate faster and bring their products to market sooner.

Cost efficiency

Compared to traditional manufacturing, using a 3D printer for rapid prototyping also has much more favorable unit economics. It does not require expensive expert labor, third-party vendor costs or the use of tool/mold sets.

Ease of use

Using a 3D printer for rapid prototyping is much simpler than many traditional manufacturing methods. Printing parts does not require special expertise, anyone can do it. Dedicated machinists do not have to work long hours; There’s no need to draft drawings, submit purchase orders, and coordinate logistics details with third-party vendors.

Same platform prototyping and production

Unlike being limited to weaker prototyping materials, using an industrial-scale 3D printer means product developers can prototype and build tooling or the final part on the same platform. Rather than making adjustments to accommodate the limitations of subtractive manufacturing, users can switch to a higher-performing material.

Things to consider about rapid prototyping


Many users prefer to produce prototypes with cost-effective materials. This saves money on prototypes that do not require advanced mechanical features.
For users with advanced 3D printers with manufacturing capabilities, higher-performance materials can be reserved for printing functional prototypes or final, validated parts in power-demanding applications, such as snowboard binding prototypes.
3D printing with advanced plastics is a faster and cheaper way to produce prototypes for parts that ultimately must be made of metal.
PLA (Polylactic acid) is a common and low-cost prototyping material, a low-temperature thermoplastic that is one of the easiest materials to successfully 3D print.


Another consideration is the specific 3D printer to be used for rapid prototyping. Organizations should consider factors such as the 3D printer’s speed, reliability, supported materials, build dimensions, and software functionality.
While there are many 3D printers that can produce low-quality prototypes, organizations should also consider printers that have the potential to produce high-quality end-use parts.
A cost-effective machine that prints only PLA may seem like an easy and fast prototyping solution. However, compromising a printer’s reliability can hinder design cycles and negate any benefits.

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