Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Physical and Digital Prototyping Belong Together

Guest post by Julie Reece, Z Corp.'s Director of Marketing Communications.

Makers of 3D CAD software for digital prototyping sometimes claim that their systems eliminate the need for physical prototypes. However, physical and digital prototyping complement one another. Both should become an integral part of your product-development processes.

In fact, physical prototypes are much in use today because they are essential to creating great designs. Thanks to the speed of 3D printing systems, innovative product developers use more physical prototypes than they did when each prototype was hand crafted, and combine them with digital prototypes to accelerate design.

Digital prototyping tools allow detailed 3D models to be conceived and changed quickly. But computer graphics is no substitute for reality. When combined with additive manufacturing technologies, physical prototypes can be made from digital models quickly and with much less labor than was traditionally required.

Deciding when and how to use physical prototypes in addition to digital prototypes requires knowledge of both digital and physical prototyping methods. Engineering executives and managers need not become additive manufacturing experts. However, they or their designated staff members should familiarize themselves with the various physical prototyping system capabilities, materials, costs, building speeds, and accuracies. With this information, managers will have rational bases for deciding if and when making a physical prototype is more cost effective than analyzing or simulating product behavior with digital prototypes.

Whether you are evaluating physical prototyping technologies in order to purchase a system for your company or employ a service, keep these points in mind:

1. Faster systems with higher throughput to produce multiple models simultaneously are desirable for iterative, conceptual prototypes or visual prototypes that support detailed design, manufacturing engineering, or marketing.

2. If you plan to make many prototypes, low material costs may be more important than buying a low-priced system.

3. Color systems eliminate the need for painting and finishing.

4. Strong but flexible materials may be needed for evaluating snap fits.

5. Some technologies are well suited to making patterns for metal castings while others are not.

6. Higher-strength materials may be necessary for physical testing.

7. Systems with fine surface finish may be required for working prototypes or final advertising shots, but can take longer to produce.

Companies that make wise choices about both digital and physical prototyping technologies will have competitive advantages compared with companies that don’t. The effective combination of both CAD and engineering software with 3D printing and rapid prototyping assures that your company will deliver products that are desirable, affordable, reliable, and safe.

Excerpt of a white paper entitled, “Physical and Digital Prototyping Belong Together,” by L. Stephen Wolfe, P.E.  Read the full white paper.

L. Stephen Wolfe, P.E. is a professional mechanical engineer based in San Diego, California. For more than 20 years, he published the newsletters Computer Aided Design Report, Rapid Prototyping Report, and Product Data Management Report as well as books on these topics. These publications filled the role of Consumer Reports for engineers seeking objective information about product-development technologies. He currently assists buyers of CAD/CAM, CAE, PDM, and rapid prototyping systems with defining their requirements, conducting independent research, identifying and negotiating with suppliers, and implementing new methods efficiently.

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