Startups are under a great deal of pressure. Investors want to get new products to market as fast as possible, while founders want to ensure products are high in quality before they reach the market. Often, these two goals are at odds—is it even possible to get a product to market quickly without sacrificing quality? The short answer is: yes, it is possible. Startups that use rapid prototyping methodology can refine a product’s design in a fraction of the time.
However, to design an effective product in as little time as possible, startups need to use the right rapid prototyping methodology for their specific needs. There are many different rapid prototyping methods available, but only one will be the best choice for your new product. This guide will help you find the ideal method for making your inventions a reality.
What is Rapid Prototyping?
Rapid prototyping is a technique for designing and making product models very quickly. To do this, rapid prototyping specialists use advanced tools like 3D printers, computer-controlled cutting machines, and skilled staff model makers. They can create detailed prototypes to scale without requiring hours of manual labor.
The main goal of a rapid prototyping methodology is to work out all of the minor details of a product before it’s put into a customer’s hands. For instance, if you’re designing a new proprietary laptop stand, you can use rapid prototyping to test different versions of the stand based on factors like weight, material quality, ease of use, durability, and safety.
Some rapid prototyping methodologies even allow you to build prototypes within just a few hours. This is a crucial benefit for startups because it empowers you to make adjustments to the design on the fly and test out new theories to find the most elegant design solutions.
There are different types of rapid prototyping methods and technologies, but they all follow the same basic process:
- Design and create the first prototype. This model can be as detailed or simplistic as needed.
- Test the first prototype. Shareholders and members of the company look at the prototype and decide what changes they would like to make in the next version.
- Make new prototypes. The first two steps are repeated for every new version of the prototype. With every cycle, the product becomes slightly better. Startups can make as few or as many prototypes as they would like. Once everyone is satisfied with the result or the company hits its prototyping deadline, the final prototype design is sent off for manufacturing.
The entire process may only take a few days if everyone is satisfied with the end result. Or, the process can take months, particularly if the product is complex and has a lot of moving parts. How long the prototyping process takes depends on your product and which rapid prototyping methodology you decide to use.
The Different Types of Rapid Prototyping Methodologies
There are dozens of rapid prototyping methodologies that startups can use to design and test their products quickly. Some of the most popular options are:
- 3D printing
- Powder bed fusions
- Computer Numerical Control (CNC) machining
- Mold making and casting
3D printing has completely transformed the rapid prototyping industry. In the past, many companies used crude methods like laminated object manufacturing to build prototypes quickly. This was a predecessor to 3D printing and involved laying thin layers of laminate onto a build plate, which was then cut by a laser or machinery. However, this method is now outdated and has been almost entirely replaced by 3D printing, which is more reliable and precise.
Startups can use a computer 3D model and a printing tool to build a prototype one layer or component at a time. Most 3D printing is done using Fused Deposition Modeling (or FDM). With this methodology, plastic filament is melted inside of the 3D printer and applied in layers until the final model is complete. This is an inexpensive method that is best for making colorful prototypes. This printing material is also quite durable.
The primary downside of using 3D printing is that the finish can be slightly rough. This isn’t a problem for some startups, but if you want to print a model with a high level of surface detail or a smooth finish, then this isn’t the best tool to use.
Powder Bed Fusions
This process involves a heat source, such as a laser, which heats up powdered material to form 3D shapes. Some common rapid prototyping methodologies that use this technique are:
- Selective Laser Sintering (SLS): A laser sinters (fuses) powder together on a build plate in layers until the final shape is achieved. You can build plastic or metal prototypes with this method. It’s capable of making very complex objects, however, the finish is rough so it isn’t ideal for forming final casts for manufacturing.
- Selective Laser Melting (SLM): Metal powder is welded in layers on a build plate. This method produces sturdy prototypes that are ideal for medical devices or complex machinery. However, they can be expensive to make.
This rapid prototyping methodology involves cutting raw materials using machines that are linked to computer 3D models. CNC machining can be very precise and produce high-quality prototypes, but it can also be a more costly process compared to 3D printing. The benefit of this method is that the model can be generated in the actual material used for the final product. The downside is that the setup time can be initially expensive but could ultimately balance out, depending on the projected order volume.
Mold Making and Casting
While machines have made it easier to design and build rapid prototypes, hand-built patterns and sculptures can also be made very quickly if you work with an experienced model making company.
This rapid prototyping methodology begins with an original model (which can be made with a 3D printer or sculpted by-hand). Skilled model makers then create a mold of the original from a variety of different materials, including:
With this mold, you can replicate a model very quickly and even reuse the mold as needed. This rapid prototyping methodology is extremely versatile because model makers have complete control over the color, density, and surface finish of the product.
Like the prototyping process itself, choosing the best rapid prototyping methodology involves some trial and error. You may start with one methodology only to switch to a different, more efficient one later on. This is why it’s important to consider your unique needs and work with a laboratory that uses a variety of methodologies to create the highest quality prototypes.
What’s the Best Rapid Prototyping Option for Startups?
The best rapid prototyping methodology is one that is designed specifically for your startup. Identifying the best prototyping tools and materials should be a collaborative process between you and the prototype manufacturer. The most trustworthy manufacturers never rely on a single method to make every prototype. Instead, they hire the most knowledgeable and experienced prototype engineers to craft custom methods for every customer.
Top prototype engineers are open to discussing every aspect of the prototyping process with clients to ensure that everyone’s goals are aligned. The best engineers make an effort to truly understand what your customers need from your products and will ask important design questions you may never have considered before. This custom, hands-on approach results in higher quality outcomes and faster production. By working with a talented team of engineers who are dedicated to finding the perfect rapid prototyping methodology for your needs, you’ll create a prototype that exceeds even your highest expectations.
PRL’s engineers have dozens of manufacturing options available to help you solve any challenge facing your product: CNC machining, custom tooling, 3D printing, thermoplastic molding, reverse engineering, and more. No matter what stage your product is currently at, we can create it and optimize it for manufacturing.