Tools to build your physical product

Prototyping your physical product doesn't mean you have to get out the hammer and nails. Technology means you can go from idea to prototype quickly
Jan 31, 2020 • 8 minute read
Ruchi Bhargava @RuchiBhargava1
Technical Co-pilot
Cover photo for Tools to build your physical product

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New tools make prototyping a lightning fast process

There used to be a time when manufacturing was a game of patience.

You had to design the product from scratch. For drawings, you had to go back to the old handheld methods of using pen and paper. And after all that was said and done, then came the hardest part of all.

Creating the prototype!

Prototyping has always been considered one of the hardest and most complicated parts of the manufacturing process. Yeah, it’s easy to conceptualize and create a design on paper (though others might disagree), but when it comes to building a functional model of the same contraption, that is where most businesses used to face a major roadblock.

But why was that so?

Well, if you think about it, the major reason behind this was the lack of technology. Creators have always been ahead of their times, and at any point in history, present technology has always lagged behind the ideas that the inventors have had.

Case in point: the creator of the Difference Engine, Charles Babbage, is widely credited as the father of modern computing. But very few know that Babbage could not build a working prototype of his design due to the simple fact that his designs were far ahead of their time, and present technology in those days was not competent enough to allow this great inventor that chance to actualize his creation.

Thankfully, present creators don’t have to face such problems.

With the advent of technologies such as CAD, 3D rendering and 3D Printing, designers and inventors can actually have a field day creating fully working prototypes of their designs. Computing technology has advanced far ahead of what it used to be in the time of Babbage, and today the world is on the cusp of a revolution in manufacturing.

Using the above-mentioned technologies, businesses can now develop prototypes easily and quickly. This has allowed inventors to rapidly test different functionalities and features of the products that they create, thus ushering a culture of efficiency and fluidity in the field of design and manufacturing.

In today’s article, we are going to delve deep into some technologies that enable the rapid creation of prototypes, and understand how they function. We are also going to look at the many benefits that businesses can stand to gain from using these advancements. By using some of these innovations from the tech frontier in your business, you stand to benefit from the advantages of rapid prototyping. This will enable your business to churn out products faster and meet the market on its own terms.

So, what are we waiting for? Let’s begin!

Computer-Aided Design (CAD)

The first technology on our list is, of course, one you’ve probably heard about if you are in the manufacturing business. CAD is one of the most revolutionary techniques that have enhanced the workability of manufacturers in present times.

Essentially put, CAD is a technology that relies on computers to create product designs, and also creates efficient documentation of the entire design process. CAD empowers the manufacturing process by creating detailed diagrams about a product’s manufacturing parameters, along with maintaining individual conventions for the product that is being created.

The advantage of CAD over conventional design methodology is that it can be utilized to create 2-D as well as 3D diagrams of the product in question. What’s more, these diagrams can be rotated along any axis, thereby allowing the manufacturer the opportunity to view it from any desired angle. It can even be utilized to give an inside-out view of the product.

CAD systems are available for all major operating systems and can be navigated using computer mice, or digital drawing pad and stylus. For rendering 3D models, stereoscopic glasses can also be used.

Some major CAD software that is currently in use is Solidworks, CATIA and the most well known, AutoCAD.

3D Rendering

Yet another computer-dependent process of creating real-world models, 3D rendering has brought a revolution to the field of modern manufacture, and of prototyping in particular. In short, it is the process of producing the three-dimensional image of any real-world object using dimensional coordinates stored in a computer graphics rendering system.

Much like photography or even cinematography, 3D rendering is a creative process that involves creating, lighting and staging scenes and imagery. The only difference is that the imagery produced is that of the real-world device or invention that is being prototyped.

3D dimensional rendering involves intense effort and an immense amount of work but allows complete control and creativity in the design process. In the beginning, prototyping using rendering software used to be a highly technical process that required specialized design and coding skills. However, the latest tools are smart enough to allow anyone with the basic design skills to render realistic models of the items being manufactured.

But why render in 3D?

Rather ask why not! 3D rendering allows businesses to modify and try out different configurations of the prototype model before actually building the physical model. Creating a three-dimensional model also allows you to share concepts visually with team members and present ideas to potential investors or executives. Rendering also allows your business to evaluate the product and optimize the design before actually investing money in building the prototype. Using 3D rendering, every version of the product during its lifecycle can be perfectly visualized.

It’s also an easy way to test out the market and understand user response. Knowing how customers are responding to the initial offering can help to further refine the actual design and create a better product. Rendering also brings prototyping out of the realms of guesswork and allows designers the freedom to experiment more with the model. At the end of the day, all this contributes to better development of the prototype, and ultimately a stellar end-product.

As far as software for 3D rendering goes, AutoCAD and CATIA are still the undisputed leaders. Other contenders in this arena are Fusion360, SolidWorks and Inventor.

Computer-Aided Manufacturing (CAM)

CAM is the cousin of CAD, as far as prototyping goes. CAM can be defined as the use of computer-based tools for the modeling and development of prototypes and working models. CAD and CAM are often used synonymously, but there is a very subtle yet important difference between the two.

CAD, as the name suggests, is the development of the design of the prototype, while CAM focuses heavily on the manufacturing part. CAD is independent of CAM, and there are multiple functions in common between the two. CAM, on the other hand, is heavily dependent on CAD and relies on the design process.

Both CAD and CAM can be utilized to create 2-D and 3D models of the prototype in question. Combined together, they can help in the processing and production of any design that is conceptualized by the inventor.

Some of the best CAM software currently in the market are SolidWorks CAM, NX CAM, and RhinoCAM, to name a few.

But wait. All these are software tools that can be used to conceptualize and create the design of the prototype. But what about manufacturing the actual prototype itself?

There’s tech for that as well!

3D Printing

If there is one technology that has completely redefined manufacturing in the 21st century, then it is 3D printing. This is a technology that allows your business to create rapid and intricately designed prototypes from computer-based designs.

But how does this technology work?

The process begins with the creation of a digital, 3D model of the prototype. This digital data is then sent to a device known as the 3D printer, which uses synthetic materials to create the actual model. Just as a regular printer print a two-dimensional image on paper using ink and dyes, a 3D printer creates a 3D dimensional model from the digital design.

There is, however, a significant difference between regular prototype manufacturing and 3D printing.

In the regular prototyping process, the prototype is created by cutting out pieces from a metal or plastic block using the appropriate tools. As this process involves the elimination of extraneous material, it is known as subtractive manufacturing.

In contrast, 3D printing is an additive process, in which the different components are combined together to form the final prototype. In 3D printing, the object is created by adding a layer-upon-layer of the printing material (usually a polymer compound) until the actual prototype is ready. Each layer is laid over the other as horizontal cross-sectional slices of the final deliverable.

It has been estimated that 3D printing allows for the production of more complex shapes than traditional manufacturing, and also uses less raw material. Apart from this, there are several other benefits of using 3D printing, some of which are as listed below.

Rapid turnaround times

It’s not necessary that every business will have the required infrastructure for creating prototypes. Because of this, most businesses have to outsource the creation of their prototypes to external manufacturers. This naturally creates a time lag of at least a week before the actual prototype is prepared. If, however, the business has a 3D printer, then the designers can create the prototypes themselves in under 24-hours.

Cost savings

Normally, the cost of preparing a single prototype can be prohibitive for smaller businesses. 3D-printers, on the other hand, are more cost-effective. Although they require an initial investment for the device, in the long run, this results in significant cost savings.

Seamless CAD integration

The combination of CAD and 3D printing can yield faster results. CAD software has evolved to become more intuitive and user-friendly; this has simplified the process to the point that even business owners with minimal design experience can easily create CAD designs and upload the files directly to the printer. Then they can be immediately used to print the required parts.

Choice of building material

One of the most advantageous points about 3D printing is the fact that printers can work with different materials. This allows the manufacturers to build the prototypes from different bases and try out multiple iterations before settling on the correct one. What’s more, the same printer can be used to build objects using different materials. This makes the process, even more, cost-effective and versatile.

Flexibility of multiple iterations

Prototyping is not usually a one-shot process; instead, most products have to undergo multiple iterations before the design is finalized. 3D printing makes this process simpler and faster at the same time. By making the required changes in the CAD file, manufacturers can easily test out multiple versions of the prototype.

To cut a long story short, 3D printing can both speed up and economize the entire prototyping process.

Final thoughts

Times have already changed, and the technologies that have been mentioned above are ushering in a new era of manufacturing. Gone are the days when manufacturing was restricted to the realm of large factories and major corporations. Now, with the help of 3D printing and associated technologies, businesses can build working prototypes in record time and deploy products to market based on demand.

As the technology matures further, we can expect faster build times and greater versatility in the entire prototyping process. CAD and CAM have opened the way for visualization of designs that were previously thought impossible. And 3D printing technology has brought industry-grade manufacturing capabilities to the fingertips of even the smallest of startups. This opens the way to a host of different possibilities, which will ultimately pave the path for better innovations and inventions.

We are already building fully functional device prototypes on 3D printers. Soon, industry experts will achieve the capability of printing objects on a large scale. Once that point is reached, the very nature of manufacturing will change and pass from the hands of the large conglomerates to the shop next door.

So get ready for a different future, where tech and creativity open the gates to greater opportunities, and a better tomorrow.

Are you game?

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