Rapid prototyping services automate the fabrication of prototype parts from three-dimensional (3D) computer-aided design (CAD) drawings. These physical models convey more complete information about a product, and earlier in the development cycle. Although conventional prototyping may take weeks or even months, rapid prototyping services can offer turnaround times of just several days. By guiding a product from concept to market quickly and inexpensively, rapid prototyping services can help customers remain competitive while controlling costs. Selection criteria for rapid prototyping services include capabilities, additional services, geographic location, and quality standards or approvals. Other terms used for these companies include desktop manufacturing, automated fabrication, tool-less manufacturing, and free-form fabrication.
Rapid prototyping services use technologies such as digital light processing (DLP), stereolithography, fused deposition modeling (FDM), and laminated object manufacturing (LOM). Digital light processing (DLP) services use a digital mirror to polymerize photosensitive resins. Unlike stereolithography, a process which uses an ultraviolet (UV) laser for curing, DLP uses visible light and special visible light-sensitive resins. Fused deposition modeling (FDM) services heat filaments of thermoplastic polymers and squeezes them from a tube to form layers. Machines range from fast concept modelers to slower, high-precision equipment. FDM materials include polyester, ABS, elastomers, and investment-casting wax. Rapid prototyping services that perform laminated object manufacturing (LOM) build 3D objects based on 3D geometric data.
Some rapid prototyping services provide polyjet (PJET), three-dimensional printing (3DP), selective laser sintering (SLS), ballistic particle manufacturing (BPM), rapid injection molding, room-temperature vulcanizing (RTV) molding, urethane casting, and other services. Polyjet (PJET) uses an application head to apply a UV-photosensitive resin onto the build tray. Three-dimensional printing (3DP) starts by depositing a layer of powder at the top of a fabrication chamber. Selective laser sintering (SLS) is a 3D printing process based on sintering. Rapid injection molding uses a solid model file (either scanned or designed) to generate a CNC file. A mold is then cut from a soft material such as aluminum and used to produce small quantities of the part. Rapid prototyping services that perform room-temperature vulcanizing (RTV) molding and urethane casting can provide accurate, cost-effective ways to make multiple parts.