Featured image of Rapid Prototyping: Quick Starter Guide to 3D Printing Prototyping
Rapidly Increase Productivity!

Rapid Prototyping: Quick Starter Guide to 3D Printing Prototyping

Picture of Max von Übel
by Max von Übel
Oct 16, 2017

Rapid Prototyping: Quick Starter Guide to 3D Printing Prototyping

Want to do rapid prototyping with 3D printing? Here is all you need to know to get started with 3D printing prototyping.

Rapid prototyping is a valuable tool for large engineering and design companies. With the proliferation of desktop 3D printing in recent years, the technology is becoming increasingly interesting for small businesses. But how do you get started? What sorts of prototypes can be produced with which technology? Can you do it yourself or should you get things 3D printed? And how can your company profit from 3D printing prototyping?

In a nutshell, here’s what you need to know about 3D printing prototyping.


3D Printing Prototyping Chances and Applications

Image of 3D Printing Prototyping: Chances and Applications

The applications of 3D printing prototyping differ widely as workflows and design goals diverge from industry to industry. Still, some general observations can be made. Here are some examples:

Jewelry 3D Printing Prototyping: The jewelry industry is an interesting example. Rapid prototyping transforms not only the design process but also the manufacturing of jewelry. 3D files can be printed in plastic for discussion and testing with target groups, without spending money on precious metals. This kind of rapid prototype is particularly informative since the master model used in the investment casting process can be printed on the same 3D printers. Going from testing to production in the jewelry industry has almost become child’s play with 3D printing prototyping.

Architecture 3D Printing Prototyping: In architecture, rapid prototyping used to be employed only in a limited number of situations. Even today, architects still carve styrofoam maquettes by hand in the model shop to experiment with shapes. It’s an easy to handle tool and almost as quick as a sketch. Ten years ago, rapid prototyping was mostly confined to presentation purposes, furnishing a 3D model to share the vision with investors and stakeholders. Nowadays, 3D printed prototypes are routinely used in architectural companies as a cost-effective tool to initiate discussion about artistic, social and functional properties of projects.

Engineering 3D Printing Prototyping: Engineers, on the other hand, have relied on rapid prototyping for decades since it has the indisputable benefit of producing geometrically accurate models quickly. These prototypes differ from merely visual models in that they can be subjected to rigorous testing and simulation scenarios. This is made possible through technologies like MultiJet printing or Direct Metal Laser Sintering that allows engineers to print their 3D files in materials that have the same properties as the finished product.

Especially for small businesses, 3D printing prototyping can be a great way to get more “grip” in the development process.


3D Printing Prototyping DIY 3D Printing Prototypes

3D Printing Prototyping: The 3D Printers

Image of 3D Printing Prototyping: DIY 3D Printing Prototypes

So, you are thinking about going all the way and setting up your own 3D printing prototyping workshop? Here is what you need:

First, get a clear idea of the goal you want to achieve with your prototype. The type of material you can use in the process and ultimately the 3D printer you buy depends on whether you want to create a concept model or a functional prototype.

You can break the issue down into two general questions:

  1. Is the prototype only a dummy to demonstrate the look and feel? Concept models are used if your product calls for extended marketing research and branding. It is also a great tool for engineers and architects to explore different design options.
  2. Does it in some way behave like the finished product? Functional prototypes have some, but not all properties of the finished product. They can be tested to find flaws in the design or material before going to production.

This table will give you a general idea about the uses of 3D printing prototyping. If you want to learn more about the applications of rapid prototyping and the suitable technologies you can jump to the respective section.

Keep in mind, that professional 3D printers are extremely expensive. Even the smallest metal 3D printer will set you back $100.000 to $200.000. If your heart is set on it, but you shy away from the cost, you should consider consulting a rapid prototyping service. This will get you the same results for a much, much lower price.

The biggest caveat is the long term cost of a 3D printing prototyping department – buying a 3D printer is only one side of the coin. The maintenance and operation of the machines should be a substantial factor in your decision-making process. You will need staff to operate and look after the 3D printers. Also, 3D printed items can rarely be used “as is” out of the printer. Depending on the 3D printing technology and the purpose of your rapid prototype, finishing of the objects may be needed.

3D Printing Prototyping: The Software

Image of 3D Printing Prototyping: The Software

Once you are clear about the goal of your 3D printing prototyping project, you will have to choose the appropriate 3D modeling software/CAD program.

In case you want to perform functional tests on your 3D printing prototype, a CAD program will do the trick. There is a wide range of possibilities: From programs who are little more than drawing boards on a computer screen to complex modeling solutions that allow complex physical simulations.

When buying a CAD program, you should keep in mind the difference between solid modeling and surface modeling. The idea behind the solid model is to represent a given object completely to be able to physically manufacture it. Solid models contain information on physical properties like the center of gravity, volume, and mass. Usually, you will start with primitive shapes (cubes, spheres, etc.) which you can add to, and subtract from to model your design. This makes solid modeling the ideal tool for 3D printing prototyping.

A surface model, on the other hand, only consists of a wireframe, and data describing the surface. These can be free-form surfaces like Bezier curves or NURBS surfaces, and others but it contains no information on the model’s content. Surface models are sufficient for many applications, like 3D animation, graphic design, and even 3D printing. But they don’t cut it for rapid prototyping.

Of course, you’re not stuck with either one or the other. Many CAD programs allow you to convert between solid, and surface 3D models.

For a concept model, on the other hand, you want to visually represent surface properties. In this case, a simple CAD program will not cut it. In addition, you will need graphic editors to create textures, packaging and promotional material.

All3DP has compiled extensive guides to help you choose the right software for your 3D prototyping requirements and budget:


3D Printing Prototyping The 3D Printing Services

But setting up your own dedicated 3D printing department is not the only option if you want to get started in rapid prototyping. For all the companies who don’t want commit to that kind of expenses, there is a whole industry ready to fulfill your every rapid prototyping wish. Some of these rapid prototyping services are heavily specialized and cater for instance to the needs of architects, others are strong in functional prototypes for engineers, and then there are services that blend rapid prototyping with low volume production.

Besides the expenses, why should you outsource 3D printing prototyping? It’s simply very convenient having your item sent to you in the post, securely tracked and packaged. Also, you don’t have to worry about the quality control of your objects, as you might with a 3D printer at your office. The logistics of printing your order are handled by professionals, to an optimal standard, and typically fulfilled within a reasonable time-frame.

Still, there are a few things you want to keep an eye on. 3D printing prototyping services offer a widely differing range of technologies, materials, and services. While some services have specialized in one single technology in which they surpass their competitors, others will offer the full range of possibilities and still do a solid job.

Also, many services out there will gladly print your 3D file in the technology and the material you have chosen and send it to you “as is”. This is fine if you already are an old hand in 3D printing prototyping. If you are only getting your feet wet, we recommend, that you really should look out for services that advertise their know-how in engineering and testing. Based on their experience, they can assess your file and recommend the right 3D printing prototyping technology and material for your purpose.

Because you shouldn’t choose an online service based on your gut feeling, All3DP has compiled a comprehensive list of 3D printing prototyping services:

3D Printing Prototyping Services: Shapeways

Image of 3D Printing Prototyping: Shapeways 3D printing prototyping service

World’s most popular online 3D printing prototyping service Shapeways offers two services. On the consumer side, you can choose from a broad array of professionally designed items, customize them and have them printed to your specifications. Similar to other 3D printing services, Shapeways offers storefronts to designers to sell and print their work. Shapeways is also suitable for rapid prototyping – customers will profit from industrial grade printers (EOS, 3D Systems) and dedicated technical support.

Shapeways can be accessed via ALL3DP’s Best Price 3D Printing Service, where the actual prices can be compared to i.materialise and Sculpteo in real-time.

3D Printing Prototyping Services: i.materialise

Image of 3D Printing Prototyping: i.materialise 3D printing prototyping service

Materialise is a company that works with industrial clients to produce prototypes and 3D printed products. But for the general public and individual designers, Materialise offers an online rapid prototyping service called i.materialise. Like Shapeways, the online 3D printing service allows anyone to upload their 3D designs and have them printed out. Once an object has been uploaded and successfully printed, a designer can offer it for sale either via the gallery on the i.materalise online store, or embedded on their website.

3D printing service i.materialise can be accessed via ALL3DP’s Best Price 3D Printing Service, where the actual prices can be compared to Shapeways and Sculpteo in real-time.

Materialise offers a second online 3D printing service for industrial clients: Materialise OnSite. Accordingly, you will find a wide range of rapid prototyping technologies, materials, and finishes at your disposal. OnSite grants 10% discount for online orders.

3D Printing Prototyping Services: Sculpteo

Image of 3D Printing Prototyping: Sculpteo 3D printing prototyping service

Like Shapeways and i.materialise, Sculpteo is an online 3D printing prototyping service that allows anyone to upload 3D models and have them fabricated in a wide variety of materials. In keeping with its competitors, Sculpteo also allows individuals and professionals to open up an online storefront and sell their designs to the public. Sculpteo’s stable of printers includes high-end machines by 3D Systems, EOS, and Stratasys. Its extensive technical documentation will help you detect design flaws and choose the right material for your project.
Sculpteo can be accessed via ALL3DP’s Best Price 3D Printing Service, where the actual prices can be compared to Shapeways and i.materialise in real-time.


3D Printing Prototyping The Concept Models

Image of 3D Printing Prototyping: 3D Systems Projet 4500


At the beginning of many product developments lies a phase were concepts compete against each other, until at the end of much debate the design team can turn in the raw 3D data that is the groundwork for functional prototypes. ColorJet Printing is an effective tool to create lifelike visual models with fine details and smooth surfaces. But in case you focus on the shape or the volume of a design, you might prefer monochromatic Stereolithography, Fused Deposition Modeling or Selective Laser Sintering.


But rapid prototypes aren’t only a tool to visually communicate ideas. They can be subjected to tests that explore their ergonomic properties, proportions, aesthetic, haptic and technical effects.

Ergonomic studies are an important tool of the conceptual design process to assess how people will use a product since physical dimensions significantly influence productivity. Using MultiJetted objects, dozens upon dozens of materials can be simulated to realistically replicate the handling of the final product. This will prevent injury and enhance ergonomic performance.


Also, concept models are used to assess the marketability of products with focus groups long before the product launch. Thanks to rapid prototyping, your test groups can physically touch and examine an object (created through Direct Metal Laser Sintering, ColorJet Printing or MultiJet Printing) that is almost indistinguishable from the finished product.

Vacuum Casting is a cost effective way to produce a small series of items that have all the properties of the end product to give away for promotion. This kind of prototype models is also often used at a later stage of the product development cycle. They can be put on display at trade fairs to market an upcoming product. Marketing material is often produced long before a functioning model of the product is available, concept models are a fast and inexpensive way to photograph your product long before the product launch.


3D Printing Prototyping Functional Prototypes

Image of 3D Printing Prototyping: Functional Prototypes

Functional Prototypes provide the groundwork for the production of the end product. At this stage, prototypes are tested for their mechanical properties and manufacturability. In order to give you an idea of the possibilities, we have compiled a small selection of scenarios and how they can be realized.

Engineering Evaluations

One of the virtues of rapid prototyping technology is the geometrical accuracy. Rapid prototypes have the exact same dimensions as the finished products. Fused Deposition Modeling is a cheap and quick way to produce surrogate components. These are parts that claim space in a larger structure to assess installation, serviceability, routing and interfaces. Surrogate components are usually employed when the final component is not yet available or too valuable to risk it being damaged during repeated installations.

Testing materials and other properties

Using MultiJet technology, it is easy to create injection molds for small scale production of parts for testing. Since these parts can be produced with the same materials of the finished product, they are virtually indistinguishable from the finished product and tests performed on these are particularly meaningful. MultiJet is also suitable to create multi-material molds by over-molding. The line between prototypes and end products is becoming increasingly blurred, as rapid prototyping technologies like this allow to transition to small batch production.

Simulation of production/assembly

Many items like plastic containers feature living hinges and snap-fit closures as cost efficient alternative to mechanical hinges. Some MultiJet and Selective Laser Sintering materials are sufficiently though to can withstand the functional testing of living hinges. Depending on the material you choose the behavior and performance of hinges and snap-fit closures can be modified.

Rapid prototyping is an ideal tool for wind tunnel testing. Internal structures that used to be complicated to produce with traditional CNC milling, are easy to create with MultiJet or Fused Deposition Modeling printers.
Apart from the mechanical testing, outlined above, rapid prototyping enables a myriad of testing scenarios to explore the electrical, acoustical and thermal properties.


3D Printing Prototyping The Technologies

3D Printing Prototyping Technology:

This table will give you a general idea about the uses of 3D printing prototyping.

Concept models
Functional prototypes (limited)
Form & Fit Testing
Wind-Tunnel Testing
Geometrical accuracy
Complex geometries
Smooth surface
Snap fits and living hinges
Heat and chemically resistant
Small marketing samples
Production-like attributes
Short Lead Time
Transparent parts
Production-grade materials
Masters/Tooling patterns

3D Printing Prototyping Technology: ColorJet Printing (CJP)

ColorJet Printing (CJP) brings together two components: First, a core powder is spread over the build platform. Then, a liquid color binder material is jetted over the core. This serves two purposes: to color and to bind the core material. This process is repeated for each and every layer until the object is completed.There is a handful of finishing options available for parts printed with CJP technology that

There is a handful of finishing options available for parts printed with CJP technology that are interesting for rapid prototyping architectural and general concept models. You can clear coat them to add a hard, smooth coating or wax coat to smooth out the surface finish.

3D Printing Prototyping Technology: Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DMLS)

Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DMLS) works similarly to SLS printers: a high-energy laser beam selectively melts together metal powder, layer by layer until the object is complete. In case support structures are required by the design, these have to be removed manually.DMLS is a highly interesting technology for the purposes of rapid prototyping and

DMLS is a highly interesting technology for the purposes of rapid prototyping and functional prototypes in particular, as the printed parts are in fact fully functional and have mechanical properties similar to those of casted parts. The test performed on these parts are thus very helpful to assess the performance of production-grade parts. Other applications include tooling and spare parts.

3D Printing Prototyping Technology: Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM)

FDM is the technology most commonly used in 3D printing. Thermoplastic filament is heated and extruded through an extrusion head that deposits the molten plastic layer by layer. Effectively, building the object from the bottom up. If an object has overhanging parts, however, it will need support structures that can be removed after the printing is finished.

This rapid prototyping technology is a cost-effective means for functional prototypes in small business since it’s capable of fabricating robust parts accurately and quickly.

3D Printing Prototyping Technology: MultiJet Printing (MJP)

As the epithet “Multi” suggests, MultiJet technology enables you to print object with two or more materials, with different mechanical or physical properties, in a single print. The printer jets layers of photopolymer materials onto a build platform, where it is instantly cured by UV light. This technology requires the use of a gel-like support material that can be washed away with water.

MultiJet is the ideal rapid prototyping technology for visual models that feature fine details and smooth surfaces. Parts printed with this technology can be used as masters for vacuum casting.

3D Printing Prototyping Technology: Stereolithography (SLA)

SLA printers cure photosensitive liquid resin by exposing it to a UV-laser beam so that the resin hardens. Then the model-building platform steps down and another layer is cured. This process is repeated for each layer until the object is completed. Like FDM 3D printers, objects with overhangs require support structures. These can be easily removed with a solvent after printing has finished.

SLA results in objects with extremely accurate features and smooth surfaces. SLA prints can even be used as master models for copying techniques like Vacuum Casting. It is a very versatile technology for rapid prototyping, as SLA prints can be used for concept and functional prototypes alike.

3D Printing Prototyping Technology: Selective Laser Sintering (SLS)

SLS is similar to SLA, but the key difference is that this type of 3D printer uses powdered material in the build area instead of liquid resin. A laser selectively sinters a layer of powder, which binds the material together to create a solid structure. When the object is fully formed, it’s left to cool in the machine before being removed.

SLS is widely used for product development and rapid prototyping in a wide range of commercial industries. The materials used in SLS can range from nylon, glass, and ceramics to aluminum, silver, and even steel.
This type of 3D printer requires the use of expensive high-powered lasers. A 3D printer of this kind will put you back substantially — if you want to use this technology nonetheless, consider one the professional 3D printing services like Shapeways, Sculpteo, and i.materialise. Also, you can compare prices with our Price comparison.

3D Printing Prototyping Technology: Vacuum Casting(VC)

VC allows you to produce a small series of production grade prototypes (20-25 reproductions), based on a master model. This master model is made using other rapid prototyping technologies like MJP and SLA. Then a mold is cast of silicone rubber. The mold is injected with liquid plastic and placed into a vacuum chamber to draw out any remaining are bubbles.

No additional finishing is required, as the prototype adopts the surface of the original master model. In addition, it is possible to create multimaterial objects using vacuum casting by over-molding. Since you can produce prototypes that closely reflect the final product, this sort of technology is particularly worthwhile for functional prototypes, promotional photoshoots and handing out marketing samples.

Recommended for you