Rock West Composites has been involved in our fair share of prototyping projects over the years. Customers rely on us to help them design and build composite prototypes that either move into mass production or remain as limited run parts for on-demand production. We use a variety of prototyping techniques, including something known as rapid prototyping.
Rapid prototyping really came into its own about 10 years ago. It was birthed out of a desire to create more rapid manufacturing techniques using composite materials. Though rapid prototyping is considered to still be in its infancy, our industry is working harder than ever before to improve and mature it for the benefit of our customers. Modern 3D printing is helping quite a bit.
We have heard some say that rapid prototyping and 3D printing are a perfect match. After all, 3D printing speeds up fabricating times significantly. And as its name implies, rapid prototyping is made that much more rapid when fabricating takes less time.
Eliminating Molds and Tools
Back in 2009, Composites World Magazine published a forward-thinking article describing how the composites industry was hoping to improve rapid manufacturing by first improving rapid prototyping. The article pointed out that rapid manufacturing concepts had already been introduced some 20 years earlier. Yet those concepts had been limited by one particular flaw inherent to the prototyping process: the time and effort it took to build composite tools.
A composite tool is, in effect, the mold or jig used to fabricate a part. Think of a supersized mold that a company like Boeing might use to fabricate wings. That mold is a tool. The time and effort needed to produce the tool all but eliminates the hope of rapid prototyping and manufacturing of new wing designs.
As such, the Composites World article correctly pointed out that the goal of the industry back then was to eliminate tooling whenever possible. By doing so, rapid prototyping would be even faster. That is exactly what engineers and designers have been working on ever since. They have found a solution in 3D printing.
Building Parts in Place
Modern 3D printing is ideal for rapid prototyping because it builds parts in place. Where more traditional manufacturing processes require parts to be built using multiple layers of composite material laid up in a mold and then cured in an autoclave, 3D printing technology both automates the process and reduces the time involved.
A 3D printer builds the part in question layer by layer as well, but the material cures in place. Furthermore, 3D printed parts need very little tooling once complete. A little bit of cleaning up is all that is necessary to get the part ready to go. The icing on the cake is the fact that 3D printing is not at all labor-intensive compared to manual layups.
Rapid Prototyping Made Better
Combining composite materials with 3D printing has done wonders for rapid prototyping. What used to take days or weeks to accomplish can now be done in a matter of hours. This greatly speeds up the prototyping process at every stage. It also means getting products to market more quickly than ever before.
Rapid prototyping is now a reality for companies of all sizes. Though technologies like 3D printing have a long way to go before they reach maturity, the capabilities we currently have mark a significant improvement over what was available back in 2009. Composite prototypes are easier to make, they can be produced more quickly, and most prototypes can be tested at the same tolerances that will be required of finished products.