Metal Rapid Prototyping

The very latest technologies are bringing massive cost and lead time benefits to prototyping. Infact very few technologies have offered as much as 3D rapid prototyping technology (RPT) has in the last 5 years.

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A bike in titanium alloy, printed using 3D rapid prototyping

What is Rapid Prototyping?

This is a technology where a rapid prototyping machine turns digital designs into 3-dimensional solid objects for production of machine parts, models, prototypes, and moulds.

It builds solid objects one layer at a time, producing high quality models overnight instead of taking weeks or months. RPT is an umbrella term used to describe one of a number of processes such as Selective Laser Sintering (SLS), Selective Laser Melting (SLM), Stereolithography (SLA) and 3D metal printing. SLS works with non-metallic materials such as plastics, ceramics, carbon compounds and rubber, etc.

Click on our infographic to the right to see how this process has added real value in bringing rapid manufacturing to industry.

Using these methods, it’s possible to create even the most complex shapes. The process can take many hours, or in some cases, even days but this is rapid compared with the alternative methods. Although there are very different ways of creating the end result, all types share the core principles of adding very fine layers together – hundreds of thousands or more – which bond together to create the final shape.

This layering and bonding process is known as an additive technology, creating a 3D prototype by adding materials together. This is in contrast to more conventional techniques which are subtractive, such as turning or milling, where materials are removed to create the end result. The term rapid metal prototyping is somewhat of a misnomer as it implies that the process is only suitable to make a non-functional part. However, the advancements in technology mean that metal can be used to create live working parts. A metal rapid prototype may not be a prototype at all, but a product suitable for functional use.

SPI Lasers Rapid Prototyping Infographic - Adding Real Value in Industry-thumb

Rapid Prototyping Infographic – Adding Real Value in Industry

What are the Advantages?

There are many advantages for both metal and non-metallic uses in rapid manufacturing including:

  • Speed – as the name implies speed is a major benefit of processes such as selective laser sintering. Whereas earlier technologies may have taken days or even weeks to produce a prototype, these latest technologies can produce a prototype virtually overnight. This improved speed enables businesses adopting 3D rapid prototyping to gain a “competitive advantage” by being able to bring products to market more quickly, this is particularly beneficial in markets such as automotive and electronics.
  • Cost reduction – if lead time is reduced, it is likely that costs are reduced too. This not only allows organisations to reduce bottom line costs but also allows them to produce alternative prototypes cost-effectively.
    • Hollow components – Enabling the design of hollow parts, which without compromising strength, use less material and are lighter when in use, which benefits industries such as Aerospace massively.
    • Reduced waste – Apart from minimal residue there is no waste. This contrasts starkly with traditional subtractive processes, which discard waste materials at considerable cost.
  • Agility of redesign – enables cost-effective and speedy fine-tuning throughout the 3D prototyping process. Designs can be more easily amended and refined, virtually within minutes.
  • Business cases – prototypes can often be developed as part of a business case – to add value to a proposition. An example could be in architecture where a prototype could be developed for a building venture to help convince investors to invest.
  • Improved solutions – enabling organisations to develop ever more efficient parts, components and new products. Businesses can offer more effective and creative solutions by easily and speedily creating prototypes for their clients or potential customers.
  • Rapid manufacturing – in some areas, metal could technically be considered as rapid manufacturing too.  Rapid manufacturing is often considered as a process which involves large numbers of the final product, but this isn’t necessarily the case. A rapid prototype metal design provides the opportunity to create the finished product quickly and efficiently while avoiding the usual long-winded and expensive processes which can make production in low numbers prohibitive.
  • Complex shapes – one great advantage of rapid prototype technology, therefore, is that it creates the opportunity to manufacture complex shapes in lower volumes at an economical rate. The evolution of additive technology such as rapid metal processing has allowed industry to become far more creative too. Complex geometric forms, or those where multiple parts have to be fabricated and combined simultaneously are difficult to achieve with subtractive technology, yet this is the area that 3D rapid prototyping excels in.
  • Low volume batches – these same technologies include processes such as selective Laser sintering (SLS) and 3D metal printing, are also enabling companies to produce cost-effective short runs. These could also be used in various circumstances for limited editions, country variants and similar reasons.
  • One-offs and patient specific – we mentioned low volumes, rapid prototyping can even be used for one-off designs and patient specific solutions. Examples include:
    • Architecture – one-off models can be produced for proposed developments. Even entire houses have been printed from 3D designs.
    • Artwork – the art industry has benefitted from 3D printing in areas such as sculptures, statues and monuments, which can be printed from a 3D design.
    • Healthcare – usually made from Titanium due to its non-toxicity to humans, 3D parts, which can be made to exact patient specifications include dental implants, heel, hip, jaw, knee and skull as well as others too.
    • Jewellery – the jewellery industry has benefitted in recent years through the creation of innovative jewellery pieces. Using 3D rapid prototyping, jewellery pieces are often complex & unusual and attract premium prices.
    • Veterinary – similar to 3D printing for human parts, the same can be applied in veterinary care

Metal rapid prototyping is a field which is generating a huge amount of interest at the moment, even in the mainstream arena where it’s often referred to collectively as 3D printing or 3D rapid prototyping. This surge in interest is helping to drive down costs even lower, making metal prototyping increasingly economical.

Share of Rapid Prototyping by Industry in 2018

According to research and statistics published by Wohlers Associates in 2018, the uses of rapid prototyping were:

  • End use parts – 28.4%
  • Functional prototypes – 27.9%
  • Cosmetic models – 10.7%
  • Education and research – 9.9%
  • Polymer patterns and molds – 7.7%
  • Jigs and fixtures – 6.1%
  • Metal tooling – 4.7% and
  • Others – 4.6%

Rapid Prototyping and SPI Lasers

For organisations creating prototypes using selective Laser sintering (SLS) and 3D metal printing processes, we can offer many advantages. These include improving the quality of the process, reducing costs, increasing turnaround and lead times and boosting quality control.

More specifically we can provide the following process performance advantages, which can all be summarised as rapid manufacturing:

  • Faster pulse rise times – shorter pulses delivered higher throughput and finer processing.
  • Power stability at switch on leading to less instability seen in work-piece.
  • Temporal pulse shaping. This is highly desirable as the process uses individual pulse in ‘point & shoot’ or continuous vector mode.
  • Back reflection protection because even for powders some users may report issues.
  • In process monitoring. Using the back reflection signal from PIPA fiber provides a unique opportunity for real-time non-invasive process monitoring.

Related articles for further reading

Here are some further related articles from SPI Lasers to develop your knowledge further:

Contact Us

To find out how we can improve your Rapid Prototyping processes please contact us on +44(0)1489 779696 or complete our online enquiry form and we will contact you. Click this link to register for updates.


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