As with general manufacturing, there are different types of rapid prototype methods you can choose from during the process of seeing your invention to production.
Although there are many different types of prototype methods to choose from, I have made a list of six of the most commonly used methods. These methods are those that you will probably need to familiarize yourself with in order to fully understand and engage in dialogue with your suppliers.
Also known as Fused Deposition Modeling, FDM is a process that generates final 3D parts using a layering process. This process is completed by layering a molten bead of plastic extruded from a thin tube controlled by a machine which mimics the final 3D design. Generally this prototype method is used to create parts for form, fit and function tests and is an excellent process to approve the concept design.
Typically known as Stereolithography, this process provides an accurate and excellent surface finish. SLS works by curing photopolymers when exposed to ultraviolet light, turning the polymer into a solid part. SLA is limited to its selection of materials but is an excellent tool for concept designs, pattern making, testing for form and fit and generally verifying your product.
Typically referred to as Selective Laser Sintering, this process produces parts layer by layer using a laser that accurately “welds” the powdered material together resulting in a 3D part. With the ability to use a number of different materials, this process is suitable for functional analysis.
CNC is a process that uses a machine to directly machine the 3D part out of a solid billet of metal or plastic. The term CNC means “Computer Numerical Control” and is highly accurate and is serves as a good tool for repetitive parts. Once the initial program is written for the first part, the file can then be stored and used over and over.
Vacuum Casting (VC) is excellent for producing repetitive parts if more than one is required. A range of polyurethanes and polymers can be used in this process. During this process, a highly accurate master model is created which can be generated using any of the previous mentioned processes. The model is carefully placed in a box and covered with liquid silicone rubber. Once set, the silicon is cut along a split line (in half) and the master model is removed. What is remaining in the form of silicone can be used to recreate the master part by pouring in and casting a large variety of polyurethane or epoxy materials to your required shape.
Once you make the initial molds, it is then capable of producing a small volume of identical parts.