Rapid prototyping is the group of techniques used to quickly fabricate a physical model or assembly from 3D CAD data. It is an agile strategy used throughout the product development process. The creation of the physical model or assembly is usually completed using additive or subtractive manufacturing methods.

How Does Rapid Prototyping Work?

Rapid Prototyping uses a standard data interface, implemented as the STL file format, to translate from CAD software to the prototyping machine.

The 3D printing prototyping process begins with translating a virtual design from computer-aided design (CAD) software. Using this data, the 3D printer constructs the physical model layer by layer, whether it’s from liquid, powder, or sheet material. These layers, mirroring the CAD model’s cross-sections, seamlessly combine to form the ultimate shape.

What are the 6 Advantages of Rapid Prototyping?

  • Reduced Design & Development Time: Rapid prototyping significantly shortens the engineering product design timeline, ensuring quicker market entry.
  • Cost Savings: Rapid prototyping leads to lower overall product development costs by minimizing rework and design iterations.
  • Enhanced User Involvement: Rapid prototyping fosters increased user and stakeholder engagement, resulting in products that better meet user needs.
  • Improved Ergonomics: The process enables the evaluation and enhancement of product ergonomics for user comfort and safety.
  • Cost-Effective Functionality Testing: Prototyping allows comprehensive functionality testing at a fraction of the cost of traditional methods.
  • Reduce risk: Early-stage prototyping helps identify and address potential issues, reducing the risk of costly errors.

Types of Prototypes Throughout Product Development

Proof-of-Concept Prototypes

Proof-of-concept prototypes occur early in product development, focusing on minimal functionality to validate assumptions before proceeding. Speed is crucial in successful concept modeling, allowing quick generation, construction, and evaluation of physical models.

At this stage, usability and quality are of less importance than available components used by engineers. These physical models facilitate discussions with stakeholders, enabling informed decisions during low-risk concept exploration.

Looks-Like Prototypes

Appearance prototypes, often called “looks-like” prototypes, provide a conceptual view of the final product’s appearance and user interaction. Though they may lack full functionality, they serve to evaluate aesthetics, ergonomics, user interfaces, and overall user experience.

The process begins with sketches, and foam or clay models, and progresses to CAD modeling. incorporating actual colors, materials, and finishes (CMF) specified for the final product. This prototype helps designers assess critical aspects before committing significant resources to product feature development.

Works-Like Prototypes

These prototypes serve to test, refine, and iterate on the mechanical, electrical, and thermal components that constitute the product. While they may differ in appearance from the final product, these prototypes include the essential technologies and functionalities that demand development and evaluation.

Engineering Prototypes

Engineering prototypes bridge the gap between design concepts and the final commercial product, ensuring it aligns with manufacturing requirements (DFM). These prototypes serve various purposes, including lab-based user testing with select lead users, communicating production intent to tooling specialists, and acting as a demonstrator during initial sales presentations.

Different Types of Rapid Prototyping Techniques

Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM)

FDM 3D printing technology creates 3D parts by melting and extruding thermoplastic resins layer by layer on a build platform, allowing them to re-solidify. FDM printers excel at producing robust, cost-effective parts suitable for moderate-strength applications. However, they often yield parts with rough surface finishes and slower printing speeds compared to some alternatives.

Stereolithography (SLA)

SLA 3D printing uses lasers to cure UV-curable resin, yielding parts with exceptional surface finish and dimensional accuracy. It’s ideal for concept models and intricate designs, although such parts may not be as robust as those made from engineering-grade resins.

Selective Laser Sintering (SLS)

SLS 3D Printing employs lasers to sinter polymer powder into functional parts. While offering accuracy and durability, SLS parts may exhibit a grainy texture and material choices can be limited.

Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DMLS)

DMLS 3D printing fuses metallic powder layers using a high-power laser beam, producing strong prototypes suitable for functional testing. It provides versatility across various metals but can involve higher costs and slightly rougher surface finishes.

Multi Jet Fusion (MJF)

MJF 3D printing uses a powder bed fusion process to create precise and durable parts. It’s known for its speed, delivering functional nylon prototypes with excellent surface finishes and consistent mechanical properties. However, it is currently limited to specific nylon materials.

Poly jetting

Polyjet 3D printing utilizes photopolymer and UV curing to craft smooth, accurate parts. While suitable for concept models and visual prototypes, these parts may lack the strength required for functional testing.

CNC Machining

CNC machining is the best prototyping method for parts requiring high precision and tight tolerances. It offers strong, finely finished components but may come with geometry limitations and potentially higher costs compared to 3D printing.

Vacuum Casting – Urethane Casting

Urethane casting uses silicone molds to produce plastic and rubber components. This method is well-suited for small to medium pre-production parts used in functional testing. It provides flexibility in resin choices but may require post-processing for surface finish improvement.

Rapid Injection Molding

Rapid injection molding utilizes aluminum molds, offering strong, well-finished parts. While a standard production process for plastic parts, it involves initial tooling costs, making it important to begin with a round or two of rapid prototypes before transitioning to full-scale production. This method accommodates a wide range of engineering-grade materials.

Get Started With KUSLA Rapid Prototyping Service

Rapid prototyping is a valuable process utilized across industries, benefiting both Fortune 500 corporations and small enterprises. It accelerates development, reduces expenses, enhances communication, and leads to superior products.

KUSLA has leading experience and expertise in rapid prototyping service technology and manufacturing process development which could help you with your prototype project needs.


No, rapid prototyping is different from 3D printing. Rapid prototyping is the technique of fabricating a physical model from a CAD file. In other words, 3D printing is the process, and rapid prototyping is the result.

Rapid prototyping can be used for product simulations during the testing and the development phase. The term ‘rapid’ relates to how a development team gathers user feedback and analyzes it fast.

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