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3D Prototyping: An Overview of 3D Prototype Printing

Gone are the days of handmade models. Today, if you are looking to win over your potential investors, clients, or managers, you need a tangible prototype or model to showcase the viability and functionality of the product. This can be fulfilled by using 3D printing for prototype development. Nothing can beat the presentation value and appeal of a product more than a 3D prototype. It is easy to make, affordable, and carries a host of other benefits. 

Here’s an overview of the manufacturing technique for you. 

What is 3D prototype printing?

3D prototyping or additive manufacturing is a powerful tool for prototyping and innovation. The process helps create physical models of three-dimensional objects and is widely used to build prototypes for product design, engineering, and other applications.

Instead of removing materials like the traditional methods (subtractive manufacturing), layers of materials (materials, plastic, etc.) are added. This makes it popular for several reasons:

  • Creating complex geometries: While traditional methods struggle with intricate shapes or internal features, additive manufacturing can build them layer by layer easily.
  • Flexibility and iteration: Need to tweak a design? Simply modify the digital file and print a new version. This rapid iteration cycle is perfect for quickly testing and refining prototypes before committing to mass production.
  • Reduced waste and material usage: Unlike subtractive methods that generate scrap material, additive manufacturing only uses the material needed for the final object. This can be more efficient and environmentally friendly.

Types of 3D Printers for Prototyping

There are various printers in the market designed specifically to handle prototype development. A few of them include: 

FDM (Fused Deposition Modeling)

3D printer executing fused deposition modeling with yellow filament, depicting additive manufacturing process

Another term for this technology is fused filament fabrication (FFF). Fused deposition modeling is a process that works for basic proof-of-concept models, apart from quick and low-cost prototyping of simple parts. In comparison to other methods, the accuracy rate and the resolution power are higher. However, it should be avoided for complicated designs. 

Materials for FDM 3D Printing: ABS, PLA, PETG, Nylon, TPU, PVA, HIPS and Composites (carbon fiber, kevlar, fiberglass). 

AdvantagesDisadvantages
Highly AffordableLower resolution
Easy-to-makeQuality isn’t too high
No worry about contaminationStructural integrity isn’t high
Uses a wide range of filament materialsLimited color options

SLS (selective laser sintering)

Illustration of selective laser sintering process with CAD design transitioning to CAM and laser fabrication

SLS, or laser powder bed fusion, melts powdered polymers in layers with the help of a laser. You can create functional prototypes ready for real-world testing in engines and machinery. Their quality is unmatched in rapid prototyping. For example, carbon-fiber-filled nylon is built with full attention to detail so that it is ready to take on adverse climatic conditions.  

Materials for selective laser sintering: Standard Resins, Clear Resin, Draft Resin, Tough and Durable Resins, Rigid Resins, Polyurethane Resins, High Temp Resin, Flexible and Elastic Resins, Silicone 40A Resin, Medical and dental resins, ESD Resin, Flame Retardant (FR) Resin, Alumina 4N Resin and Jewelry resins. 

AdvantagesDisadvantages
Fast printing of a high volume of partsDistortion due to shrinkage after production
Generated parts are highly flexible and preciseSurface lacks smoothness
No need for a support structureRespiratory issues due to powder use

Stereolithography (SLA)

Diagram of stereolithography apparatus with laser curing liquid photopolymer to create 3D parts layer by layer

Photopolymerization technology uses a UV light source to solidify photosensitive resins and build intricate prototypes layer by layer till the model is ready. It is only applicable for high-resolution 3D prototypes. You can use it for making mechanical parts, architectural models, jewelry designs, and other consumer products.

Materials for Stereolithography: Nylon 12, Nylon 11, Nylon composites, Polypropylene, and TPU. 

AdvantagesDisadvantages
Smooth surface with a high surface finishNot environment-friendly
Prints both internal and external geometry accuratelyCannot print large prints
Short printing timeNeeds curing after every print 

Two-photon polymerization (TPP)

Schematic of two-photon polymerization setup with femtosecond laser and precision XYZ positioning stage.

As a micro printing technology, TPP can print parts that are smaller than 0.1 microns. It uses a photosensitive resin and a pulsed femtosecond laser pointed at a special resin. This laser converts tiny bits of the liquid into solid pieces, building up a 3D object layer by layer. This lets you create detailed objects that can be a few millimeters big with nanometer details.

TPP finds application in medical applications, research, and manufacturing for tiny parts, such as micro-sized electrodes and optical sensors.

Materials for Two-Photon Polymerization: liquid polymeric resins

AdvantagesDisadvantages
Unmatched resolutionSlow printing speed
Direct 3D fabrication. No need for support structuresCostly equipment
Material versatilityLimited material selection
Minimal heat impactLimited build volume

Digital Light Processing (DLP)

Digital Light Processing (DLP) projector setup in a control room with associated electronic equipment

In DLP 3D printing, a digital light projector is utilized to showcase an image of each layer. It happens on a layer of resin. DLP is a common choice for producing larger parts or multiple parts in a single batch, as it gives consistent time regardless of the number of parts. 

Digital Light Processing is applicable in static displays, interactive displays and also in security, medical, and industrial usages.

Materials for Digital Light Processing: thermoplastic resins, metals, and ultraviolet-curable resins

AdvantagesDisadvantages 
High accuracy and detailLimited build volume
Fast printing speedsCauses voxelization
Wide range of materialsResin mess
Relatively affordableCauses voxelation

Liquid Crystal Display (LCD)

Illustration of an LCD-based 3D printing process with sequential layer projection and elevation stages

This is almost similar to Digital Light Processing (DLP). However, the difference lies in the use of LCD for the former. Also, the reason why it is priced higher. Just like DLP, the LCD screen displays a digital picture that comprises small square dots. The size of these dots on the screen decides how elaborate the print will be. 

Materials for Liquid Crystal Display: composite materials

Advantages Disadvantages
High Detail and ResolutionLimited Build Volume
Faster Printing SpeedFragile Prints
Smoother Surface FinishRequires ventilation due to resin mess
Wide Material VarietyHigher Cost

Metal 3D Printing

For metal products, you need a metal prototype. Remember, polymer alternatives are cheaper than metal 3D printing technology. Going for 3D printing is a better option than CNC milling stainless steel or injection molding as these create prototypes without leaving any waste material behind.  

Types of metal 3D printing

Metal FDM: Just like traditional FDM printers, these build parts by squeezing metal-filled filaments and shedding their binding layers in a furnace.  

SLM (Selective Laser Melting) and DMLS (Direct Metal Laser Sintering): Stepping up from polymers, SLM and DMLS technologies harness the power of lasers to meticulously fuse metal powder into intricate, layer-upon-layer creations. They are perfect for several applications across aerospace, automotive, and medical fields.

Materials for metal 3D printing: Titanium, Stainless steel, Aluminum, Tool steel and Nickel alloys.

AdvantagesDisadvantages
Allows creation of highly complex geometries and internal featuresHigh-cost
Rapid prototypingOften requires extensive post-processing
Reduces material wasteAccuracy and surface finish not as desired
Produces lightweight partsLimits material selection

Uses 

3D printing allows you to break free from the rigid molds and forms of yesteryear. Intricate curves, intricate lattices, and hollow structures are no problem with it.

Type of Materials for 3D Printing

3D printing requires some raw materials to create innovative and futuristic prototypes. These include:

Plastics

One of the most commonly used materials in 3D printing is plastics. The reason they are in wide use is their ability to create prototypes for diverse industries, such as toys for kids and sophisticated household fixtures. Examples include action figures, utensils, and vases. 

Plastic – the raw material can be either transparent or colored or available on spools. Depending on the desired texture, you can buy matte or shiny plastic. Moreover, they are cost-effective and won’t dig a hole in your pocket. 

FDM printers are mostly used to create plastic products. All the 3D-printed plastic can morph into any shape imaginable, from flat coasters to intricate gears and smooth curves to textured landscapes. Here are a few types of plastics that are commonly used:

Polylactic acid (PLA): an eco-friendly option – it is taken from natural products such as sugar cane and corn starch. They are available in both soft and hard forms. The latter is stronger and, therefore, perfect for various industrial products.

Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS): Another name, Lego Plastic, this one is a go-to choice for 3D printers. It comprises pasta-like filaments that help create a super strong, bendy material. They are ideal for building endless things or sticking fun designs to any surface. While favored by hobbyist printers, it is also commonly utilized in the production of commercially available consumer goods.

Polycarbonate (PC): Not so commonly used as the other types, PC is compatible with high-temperature printers whose nozzles have high precision. 

Polyvinyl alcohol plastic (PVA): When looking for a budget-friendly printer, PVA is the right choice. PVA is an apt choice as a dissolvable support material. Though it may not suit high-strength products, it still serves as a cost-effective solution for temporary-use items.

Powders

High-tech 3D printers employ powdered materials to sculpt different products by melting and layering powder. This creates objects with perfect thickness, texture, and patterns. Different types of powders that are used in 3D printing include

Polyamide (Nylon): Two reasons that differentiate polyamide from the rest are strength and flexibility. This unique combination makes it work for printing objects with fine details, like the gears of a tiny robot or the delicate features of a miniature figurine. 

Alumide: A combination of polyamide and gray aluminum, polyamide ensures 3D-printed models of extremely high strength. You can depend on it for industrial prototypes and models. 

Resins.

In comparison to other materials, the resin is not as strong or flexible. Since it comprises a liquid polymer, resin solidifies upon exposure to UV light. It is mainly available in black, white, and transparent options; some printed items have also been created in orange, red, blue, and green. It can be divided into three categories:

Transparent resin. Its unmatchable strength makes it one of the most sought-after resins for 3D-printed products. The resultant prototypes are transparent (as the name suggests) and smooth. 

Paintable resin: Some resins excel in the aesthetics department. For example, the figurines with lifelike, paintable facial details or sleek sculptures that draw every eye are all a result of paintable resins. 

High detail resins: Tiny models but with extensive details, that’s what high detail resins do. Imagine figurines that are barely four inches tall and are adorned with intricate clothing and lifelike facial features. 

Metals

After plastics, metals are the most widely used material. They are capable of breathing life into products that handle everyday wear and tear, such as intricate jewelry and even aircraft parts. Additionally, advancements in metal-based 3D printing technology allow manufacturers to utilize DMLS for production at high speeds and volumes. 

Here is the wide range of metals in use for 3D printing

  • Aluminum: Ideal for thin metal objects
  • Bronze: Vases and some other fixtures
  • Stainless steel: Those components that may come in direct contact with water
  • Nickel: works for printing coins

Other materials 

A few other materials used for 3D printing include carbon fiber, nitinol, graphite, graphene, and paper. 

How to Print a 3D Prototype

It takes place in 4 easy steps:

  • Design a model using a computer program. Make changes at this stage if you notice any flaws. 
  • Use slicing software to break it down into thin layers. Adjust settings like layer height, infill percentage, support structures, and print speed. This process generates a G-code.
  • The printer will construct the object layer by layer using chosen materials and methods. When all layers are printed, the object is done and can be removed from the build platform. 
  • Remove the support structures carefully using pliers and cutters. Clean any residual material or debris from the surface of the printed object using methods such as brushing, sanding, or washing.

Applications of 3D Printing

Consumer Goods

Customization and innovation are the cornerstones of success in today’s dynamic consumer market. 3D is the new-age technique for retailers and manufacturers to unlock them all. It is the new way to design, produce, and experience the products we love.

The R&D of industrial desktop 3D printers is making it easier for engineers and designers to revolutionize the way this industry works. 

Fashion

Producing customized designs has never been easier. The fashion industry is leveraging 3D printing technology to cater to its customers now. They can accomplish intricate designs easily and quickly without much manual interference. 

They even use unheard materials such as plastics to create designs, thus expanding the textile horizons.

Aerospace

Aerospace is one of the first industries to use 3D printing. In fact, the global aerospace 3D printing market size reached a whopping US$ 4.6 Billion in 2023. Not only this but it is expected to grow at a CAGR of 16.2% from 2024 to 2032. 

Airbus, Boeing, GE, GKN, and Safran are the key players in this arena. They utilize 3D printing to create lightweight components, functional prototypes, and tooling. 

Education

This sector is utilizing the power of 3D to revolutionize the way students learn. The students can use this technology to create models. This helps the latter to understand the concepts better. Not only this, but the teachers also use it to prepare their teaching plans.

No wonder, then, the market for 3D printing in education will grow at a CAGR of 12.12% between 2022 and 2027. 

Construction

In construction, different components and structures are prepared using 3D printing. All the complicated structures can be made at a much lower price. Some of the structures that use this technology include molds and forms. 

These are the reasons the market for 3D printing in the construction industry anticipates reaching USD 519.49 billion by 2032. 

Medical

The use of 3D printing is on the rise in this industry and will continue to in the coming years. The experts believe that their usage is here to stay. The applications are versatile and may range from prosthetics, implants, and bioprinting to surgical planning and testing.

Thanks to low-cost rapid prototyping, medical device manufacturers can quickly test and refine their designs. This will help bring new ideas to patients even faster. Not only this, but 3D can also help build patient-specific devices and ensure a perfect fit and optimal outcome.

Automotive:

According to a report by SmartWatch, the global 3D printing revenue will reach $7.9 billion by 2027. This shows how essential 3D prototyping has become for this industry. Prototyping aside, the companies are using tooling as one of the major uses of 3D printing. 

So, one can expect tailor-made solutions, apart from faster production, due to the use of 3D prototyping in the automotive industry. Not only this, but the designers also get multiple design alternatives and flexibility when it comes to designing the prototypes.

Conclusion

We know that prototyping is an essential process in product development that is helping different industries in different ways. 3D printing has amazing capabilities in prototype development. By using it, these industries can make sure to stay ahead of the competition. 

If you are someone looking to leverage the full potential of 3D printing for your projects, then consider partnering with HiTop Industrial. We use our experience and expertise to help all innovators, designers, and engineers bring their visions to life. 

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