Rapid Prototyping (RP) is defined as a group of technologies used to quickly produce a scale model of a component or group of components using 3-dimensional computer aided design (CAD) data. It can also be referred to as additive manufacturing and/or 3D printing.
What this actually means is that a computer generated virtual design from 3D design software is translated into thin horizontal cross-sections.
These layers are created one at a time to create a real physical model where the layers are joined together or fused automatically to create the final model.
This is where the names additive manufacture and plastic rapid prototyping are derived. It is a ‘what you see is what you get’ process where the virtual model is almost identical to the physical model.
This gives the technology a fundamental advantage over traditional techniques as it can create almost any geometric feature or shape.
As materials and techniques develop, increasingly Rapid Prototyping technologies are being used for production parts rather than just prototypes.
Currently, RP models aren’t as accurate or the material isn’t as good as CNC machined parts for instance, but, some of the most accurate 3D printers are generally creating parts to a tolerance of +/- 0.125mm.
Traditional techniques such as injection molding will be cheaper for higher quantity parts but additive manufacturer can be faster and less expensive for smaller batch quantities, especially for hard to manufacture parts.