Rapid Prototyping: From Obscure Tech to a Mainstream Service
Not long ago, rapid prototyping seemed like science fiction, but today it is a reality and quickly becoming a standard way to produce parts quickly and cheaply.
From 3D printers to laser microfabrication machines, rapid prototyping has taken on many mainstream forms. The mathematical concepts leading up to this technology were thought up by Professor Herb Voelker, who conducted computer science and solid modeling research in the 1970s and studied machine tools and numerical computer programming in the 1980s. The principles were applied to a fabrication technical, selective laser sintering, in the 1990s by Carl Deckard. Thus, the technological evolutionary path that led to 3D printing, laser microfabrication, and rapid product prototyping began.
Until recently, these concepts were unfamiliar to the public eye. Today, simple 3D printers are available in consumer stores. President Barack Obama heralded the capabilities, revolutionary potential, and, and availability of rapid prototyping machines in his 2013 State of the Union address. The technology is no longer obscure. Several techniques now exist and include stereolithography, CNC machining, injection molding, sheet metal forming, and aluminum and plastic extrusion, and many more.
Many of today’s processes involve a 3D computer-aided-design (CAD) model. This is often converted into a stereolithography model and digitally sliced up into cross sections. Detailed geometry is used to analyze these layers and translate the data into mechanical actions that form a physical object.
Rapid prototyping is allowing companies to develop and test the initial iterations of products quickly. The concept, however, isn’t limited to prototypes. Many end-use products are being made this way too thanks to techniques such as selective laser sintering, which is highly accurate. Micromachining and microfabrication tools are being enhanced by high-speed femtosecond lasers. These can heat a very small area (as small as 1 micrometer), and not change any areas surrounding it. The ultra-high precision is further aided by complex, synchronized optical and motion control systems and specialized software.
Techniques such as ablative laser micromachining have matured so much they’re suited for mainstream industrial production. Rapid manufacturing is being used to make fuel injector nozzles and other automotive parts, and OLEDs for consumer electronics. Micromanufacturing is also occurring in three dimensions. Additive micromanufacturing allows designers to build microstructures, layer-by-layer, without removing material from a solid object. A more efficient use of materials is, therefore, possible, and electronics, biomedical, and decorative structure makers are benefiting. Microelectromechanical systems are also being produced more quickly.
Rapid prototyping and manufacturing are, therefore, mainstream in today’s technological, fast-paced world. The tools to be productive, efficient, and competitive are readily available to manufacturers. Just decades ago, the work of experts began that led to streamlined product prototyping processes used in many industries today.