Rapid Prototyping

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Machining is a subtractive process, beginning with a solid piece of stock. The machinist must carefully remove material until the desired geometry is achieved. For complex part geometries, this is an exhaustive, time consuming, and expensive process. Some parts are even too complex to be machined. Rapid Prototyping is a method in which the part is created by a layer-additive process. Using a specialized software, a 3-D CAD model is cut into very thin layers or cross-sections. Then, depending on the specific method used, the RP machine constructs the part layer by layer until a solid replica of the CAD model is generated. Material selection is also method specific. The advantages of this process is clear: development of physical models can be accomplished in significantly less time as compared to the machining process. Some other applications of these technologies include development of models and tooling. Additionally, in the medical field, the convergence of medical imaging, CAD, and RP has made it possible to quickly develop medical models.

The term rapid prototyping (RP) refers to a class of technologies that can automatically construct physical models from Computer-Aided Design (CAD) data. These "three dimensional printers" allow designers to quickly create tangible prototypes of their designs, rather than just two-dimensional pictures. Such models have numerous uses. They make excellent visual aids for communicating ideas with co-workers or customers. In addition, prototypes can be used for design testing. For example, an aerospace engineer might mount a model airfoil in a wind tunnel to measure lift and drag forces. Designers have always utilized prototypes; RP allows them to be made faster and less expensively.In addition to prototypes, RP techniques can also be used to make tooling (referred to as rapid tooling) and even production-quality parts (rapid manufacturing.

For small production runs and complicated objects, rapid prototyping is often the best manufacturing process available. Of course, "rapid" is a relative term. Most prototypes require from three to seventy-two hours to build, depending on the size and complexity of the object. This may seem slow, but it is much faster than the weeks or months required to make a prototype by traditional means such as machining. These dramatic time savings allow manufacturers to bring products to market faster and more cheaply. In 1994, Pratt & Whitney achieved "an order of magnitude [cost] reduction [and]  time savings of 70 to 90 percent" by incorporating rapid prototyping into their investment casting process.

Basic Process

Although several rapid prototyping techniques exist, all employ the same basic five-step process. The steps are: 

1. Create a CAD model of the design

2. Convert the CAD model to STL format

3. Slice the STL file into thin cross-sectional layers

4. Construct the model one layer atop another

5. Clean and finish the model

CAD Model Creation

First, the object to be built is modelled using a Computer-Aided Design (CAD) software package. Solid modelers, such as Pro/ENGINEER, tend to represent 3-D objects more accurately than wire-frame modellers such as AutoCAD, and will therefore yield better results. The designer can use a pre-existing CAD file or may wish to create one expressly for prototyping purposes. This process is identical for all of the RP build techniques. 

Conversion to STL Format

The various CAD packages use a number of different algorithms to represent solid objects. To establish consistency, the STL (stereolithography, the first RP technique) format has been adopted as the standard of the rapid prototyping industry. The second step, therefore, is to convert the CAD file into STL format. This format represents a three-dimensional surface as an assembly of planar triangles, "like the facets of a cut jewel." 6 The file contains the coordinates of the vertices and the direction of the outward normal of each triangle. Because STL files use planar elements, they cannot represent curved surfaces exactly. Increasing the number of triangles improves the approximation, but at the cost of bigger file size. Large, complicated files require more time to pre-process and build, so the designer must balance accuracy with manageability to produce a useful STL file. Since the .stl format is universal, this process is identical for all of the RP build techniques.
Slice the STL File

In the third step, a pre-processing program prepares the STL file to be built. Several programs are available, and most allow the user to adjust the size, location and orientation of the model. Build orientation is important for several reasons. First, properties of rapid prototypes vary from one coordinate direction to another. For example, prototypes are usually weaker and less accurate in the z (vertical) direction than in the x-y plane. In addition, part orientation partially determines the amount of time required to build the model. Placing the shortest dimension in the z direction reduces the number of layers, thereby shortening build time. The pre-processing software slices the STL model into a number of layers from 0.01 mm to 0.7 mm thick, depending on the build technique. The program may also generate an auxiliary structure to support the model during the build. Supports are useful for delicate features such as overhangs, internal cavities, and thin-walled sections. Each PR machine manufacturer supplies their own proprietary pre-processing software. 

Layer by Layer Construction

The fourth step is the actual construction of the part. Using one of several techniques (described in the next section) RP machines build one layer at a time from polymers, paper, or powdered metal. Most machines are fairly autonomous, needing little human intervention.

Clean and Finish

The final step is post-processing. This involves removing the prototype from the machine and detaching any supports. Some photosensitive materials need to be fully cured before use. Prototypes may also require minor cleaning and surface treatment. Sanding, sealing, and/or painting the model will improve its appearance and durability.

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