Rapid Prototyping – still going forward – fast

We’ve all seen buzz technologies come and go but rapid prototyping has shown true staying power. Interest is still strong in this fascinating technology and at this year’s ICAT exhibition you can catch up on all the latest developments in the Rapid Prototyping Centre sponsored by Design Engineering.

RP (rapid prototyping) was developed as a quick way of testing out a complex design before committing to metal or expensive tooling. Sometimes the CAD model would not show where problems or gaps lurked until it was too late. You could check that several components were compatible or just take a look at a physical manifestation of your design before proceeding further. These motivations are still valid but RP has moved on introducing more possibilities and we hear terms like rapid engineering and rapid tooling.

Very quick, relatively low cost machines using ink jet technology can provide a ‘physical drawing’. It’s a relatively rough model but it helps you visualise and describe – particularly to non technicals – your design at quite an early stage. At the opposite end of the scale similar technology is being used to make tooling for short runs – some machines going straight to metal.

The range of materials used in RP is also growing allowing users to simulate an increasing range of manufacturing materials.

RP technology takes a CAD model and cuts it into thin ‘slices’ then, using one of a range of methods, these slices are produced and piled on top of one another. This can most clearly be seen in the lamination type machines which physically cut sheets of paper or polymer and stick them together. But more common, and generally considered more accurate, are the stereolithography machines which build the RP model by selectively curing a liquid polymer in slices, one on top of the other with a laser.

The basic principles of RP are pretty well known and the benefits accepted, although the majority of work is still carried out by RP bureaux as most companies feel unable to justify investment in their own system. But developments in this area are yet to reach a plateau and currently rush relentlessly uphill. If you haven’t taken a look at this technology for a while then the Rapid Prototyping Centre at ICAT is a must – even if you are up to speed there is bound to be something in one of the seminars to surprise you. The Rapid Prototyping Centre is offering free sessions on a range RP related subjects.