Model Making and Prototyping
Prototyping Overview
A prototype is a representation of a product and is used to perform market and functionality testing prior to investing in full scale manufacture.

A prototype can be fully or partially functional and generally uses similar materials/finishes to the proposed product. There are many options for making prototypes including rapid prototyping technologies, vacuum forming, vacuum casting and CNC machining.

All of the options have different advantages and disadvantages depending upon the part to be made, time and the capital available for prototyping.

3D Printing
FDM or 3D printing machines produce economical prototypes through an additive layering process in a very swift turnaround time.

These machines add material onto a platform usually via a spool or reel and the type of material used is dependant upon the selected machine. The available materials range from ABS composites to standard A4 sheets of paper but the materials can be machine specific i.e. machine will only accept one type of material.

Most of the machines can produce parts in a range of colours and the accuracy of some parts can replicate production models. However, 3D printing can result in parts that are weaker than the product would be in production due to the layering process so the machines are used primarily for prototyping purposes as their structural integrity is not comparable to a finished molded part, for example.

Laser Sintering (SLS)
Laser Sintering machines build prototypes through fusing layers of powder together via high powered lasers.

The part is built from the bottom upwards on a table that moves down 0.1mm, with each pass of the laser corresponding to an upward movement of the powder delivery table.

These machines can build parts in nylon or metal with varying degrees of flexibility / hardness. There are a wide range of materials available for each of these machines and the parts can be finished to a very high standard.

A major advantage to this process is that you can build an assembly of parts that move relative to one another, however, accuracy of the models produced is generally less accurate to other prototyping methods.

Stereolithography (SLA)
On SLA machines the parts are built from the bottom up on a platform that moves downwards into a bath of liquid resin.

As the platform lowers the resin is cured in layers via a passing laser. The parts produced can be highly accurate and are available in a very wide range of colours.

This process can also produce transparent parts. SLA parts are only suited to prototyping due to their fragile nature and the build platforms are quite limited in size.

CNC Machining
CNC machining is a subtractive process where a block of material is machined away to reveal the parts shape.

Parts can be created from an unlimited range of materials and generally speaking the parts created mimic production. CNC machining can be used for the creation of prototypes, for small batch runs and for large production runs and it has been around for a long time with millions of highly skilled professionals worldwide.

Unlike the rapid prototyping methods this process does not cater for undercuts and can occasionally be quite a laborious process. This is an ideal option for people who need their prototype to have similar strength and functionality to production parts but it can be expensive to create one-off parts due to set up time and the labour involved.

Vacuum Forming (Vac Forming)
Vacuum forming is a process whereby a heated polymer sheet is pulled over a mould by a vacuum. The machines range in size and can cater for quite large forms.

The molds can be created by machining blocks of porous material (e.g. sicca board / mdf ) to match the contours of the desired form. This can be quite an inexpensive way of creating forms as multiple forms can be created off the one tool.

There are a wide range of plastic sheets in a range of colours that can be used and the parts can even be textured to provide an added flair to the design. A major advantage to this process is that the parts can have quite a large wall thickness. This process is ideally suited to making basic prototype forms and is also used for mass production packaging runs (blister packs are vac-formed).

Silicon Molding (Vacuum Casting)
From an SLA, 3D print model or sintered part, vacuum casting is used to produce a series of replica parts which simulate production materials, colours and surface textures.

The master is a fine finished and paint textured by an experienced model maker to achieve the required surface quality. This forms the pattern for a silicon rubber mould into which a variety of modified polyurethane resins are cast to produce the required parts.

The incorporation of vacuum technology in this process ensures consistent replication of the fine detail, yielding parts which are difficult to distinguish visually from actual production moldings.

Vacuum cast parts are ideal for manufacturing assessment, market testing, field trials and product approval applications.


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