Rapid prototyping equipment is used to build examples of products before they are mass-produced for the marketplace. Rapid prototyping equipment includes machines and processes that perform stereo lithography (SLA), rapid injection molding, selective laser sintering (SLS), room temperature vulcanizing (RTV), and three-dimensional (3D) printing. Rapid prototyping equipment may also be part of a computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) system to aid in the development process by creating 3D models from computer-aided design (CAD) drawings. 3D rapid prototyping equipment reads CAD data and creates a sculptural object based on this information.
Rapid prototyping equipment includes various additive methods for creating design samples. Stereolithography (SLA) equipment makes a solid object by using a laser on the surface of a container of a liquid plastic or polymer. The laser traces out a layer in the polymer, which is solidified by the laser. Once solid, the layer descends below the surface of the liquid in the container so the laser can trace and solidify the next layer. Rapid injection molding equipment creates a mold, typically cut from aluminum or other soft material, which is then used as a template to create a small number of prototype parts. Selective laser sintering (SLS) equipment uses a process similar to stereolithography in that SLS also uses a laser to create layers, but rather than using liquid plastics, SLS rapid prototyping equipment fuses plastic, metal, or ceramic particles together to form a solid object. An SLS rapid prototyping machine uses a laser to fuse the powdered material together based on the data from a CAD drawing or other electronic file, creating layers that are built successively on top of each other. RTV molding equipment typically incorporates the prototype model created by stereolithography to then create accurate rubber or urethane molds for casting sample parts.
Other types of rapid prototyping equipment and processes are used in designing printed circuit boards (PCBs). High speed PCB design uses both through-hole and surface mount processes to build sample circuits and boards, providing an opportunity to test the quality and functionality of a PCB layout before manufacturing.