The initial application for 3D Printing was in creating prototypes for companies. By quickly making one off parts 3D Printing was used across many different industries in different types of prototypes. In this post we’ll look at the mayor the main types of 3D Printed prototypes.
Initially 3D printing was mainly used for visual prototypes. The technology was limited in its infancy and prototypes had to just resemble the final product. Compared to making a prototype completely by hand 3D printing a visual one is cost effective. In the consumer electronics and automotive industry manufacturers outsourced the technology or brought stereolithography machines in house. These prototypes were mainly used by design teams internally or to pitch new products to executives. Many companies nowadays use visual prototypes in house extensively as an integral part of their design process.
Hand Finished Prototypes
3D printing service bureaus started to emerge that hand finished prototypes soon after. A 3D printed prototype SLA or FDM print would be sanded down by hand, painted and then exquisitely detailed. Initially this was a premium service that enhanced visual prototypes and made them more suited for in house use. Later on these prototypes were used for: pitches to customers, revealing new product line ups to retailers, discussing launches with partners and photography. Hand finished prototypes were in many cases indistinguishable from the real final part and so could be used for product photography for example. This let companies photograph the 3D print and use these images for marketing materials, catalogues and launch imagery while the actual final product was being made. Given lead times from manufacturing overseas and with processes such as injection molding this became a time saving measure for many companies. They could launch before they had the final product or launch once it hit retailers or distributors. Hand finished prototypes were also used for press launches and in commercials. At a trade fair or event the 3D printed prototype would be presented as the final product and shown to the press. Commercials often also had to be made months in advance and the prototype would be used as a stand in for the real product there as well. At the moment many concept cars have 3D printed parts on them. These unique one off parts are meticulously hand finished and grace the pages of the automotive press worldwide while showcasing the future of cars.
Form and Fit Testing Prototypes
As 3D printed parts got stronger they also began to be used as form and fit testing prototypes. Automotive companies especially started to 3D print in house using industrial machines and make prototypes for many testing applications. Prototypes like these have to mimic the final injection molded part as close as possible. The look of the part needs to be as close as is possible to the final production part and the dimensional accuracy of the part needs to be as high as possible as well. Whereas hand finished parts were mostly made by specialized service bureaus these form and fit parts were extensively 3D printed in house.
A new development is the making on draft prototypes. Due to the rise of inexpensive desktop 3D printers more and more individual designers and engineers had access to 3D printing. Whereas initially companies either outsourced to a service bureau or had an internal workshop that 3D printed in house they now have another option, to 3D print deskside. This lets the individual designer quickly make prototypes within her own reach. This has caused 3D printers to spread into the enterprise. Whereas initially 3D printing was locked behind a department inside the company now it began to spread to many different offices, department and desks. By making prototypes themselves people were more flexible in when and how they could make these prototypes. This lead to the creation of more and more prototypes. Rather than one prototype being required for an important pitch or the next launch prototypes were now being made to test out ideas and guide meetings and discussions.
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