Over the past twenty years Rapid Prototyping (RP) has been one of the most important techniques introduced to reduce the time for new product development. RP is a process of producing a model using a layer-by-layer deposition of material. With RP, designers can build a physical model of a component within hours, when before it could have taken weeks. Chiu et al. believes that “A diagram serves better than one thousand words for description, whereas a solid model serves better than one thousand diagrams for illustration”.
Charles Hull first imagined the idea of Rapid Prototyping in September 1982 when he was vice president of UVP Inc., which specialised in products that involved UV light. He developed the first feasible stereolithography RP machine in February 1983 and applied for a basic patent in August 1984. After acquiring the exclusive rights of UVP Inc. money was raised and 3D systems founded by Charles Hull and Raymond Freed in March 1986. The first machine commercially sold was in early 1988.
Rapid Prototyping is essentially the building of models in layers. These models can be built in various materials such as plastic, paper, metal and even rubber. The developments in rapid prototyping materials over the past few years has being staggering and are showing no sign of slowing down. Rapid prototyping simplifies the building of complex objects easy because of its layer-by-layer process. However these models are generally only useful as prototypes and not final products, but as mentioned with the developments of materials this could all change in the near future. In general rapid prototyping processes produce little waste material; this is seen to be very attractive in certain industries that use expensive materials extensively (e.g. aerospace).
Rapid Prototyping improves communication between all interested parties and enables them to understand the design. Thrimurthulu et al. classifies Rapid Prototyping as “an important technology as it has potential to reduce the manufacturing lead time of the product up to 30–50% even when the relative part complexity is very high”. Having a model in your hand allows the designer/manufacturer to detect any flaws in product design and therefore make design changes before the decisions are made to have high cost moulds manufactured.