Rapid Prototyping Tools


 The typical design, build, test cycle has proven an effective means of bringing a product to market in the past.  The current frontiers of the product development world are no different, except in the fact that the build phase has been significantly reduced.  There exist a myriad of technologies out there which help to shorten this product development life cycle, but I want to focus on one set of tools in particular: 3D printers.  

3D printing has grown in popularity at an amazing pace, with the average price per machine now affordable to the average small business owner (not to mention hobbyists.)  These machines take, as an input, a digital file, and are able to output a physical 3D part.  This helps designers and engineers alike in that a part can be turned around in only a few hours as opposed to days or even weeks.

There are several players in the 3D printing world, with the two giants 3D Systems and Stratasys.  Each of these companies sells several different 3D printing technologies.  Most of these technologies build a part up in extremely small cross sections until the part is complete.  The differences in machines comes with resolution (some down to .001",) material and speed to build.

3D systems has released a sub $1.5K machine that promises to bring 3D printing to the masses, with an easy to use wi-fi enabled device called the cube (http://cubify.com/).  The cube lays down plastic layers of .01" thickness to build solid plastic parts with breakaway support material.

Another up and coming device is being featured on Kickstarter.  The Form 1 printer, developed in MIT's Media Labs, is based on Stereolithography technology (SLA).  This technology uses a laser to selectively cure a photopolymer in layers.  This machine has a layer thickness of .001", and is sure to be a big player in the market with a targeted cost of just over $2K for the basic machine (http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/formlabs/form-1-an-affordable-professional-3d-printer).

Whatever your needs may be, there likely exists a 3D printing technology that can assist you.  Look for this technology to continue to grow in popularity, and who knows... you might have one on your desk in the future.

photo credit: http://formlabs.com/pages/material