Three-dimensional printing technology is maturing rapidly, and it’s transforming prototyping in the process. The global 3-D printing market will expand at a compound annual growth rate of 15.4 percent between 2016 and 2022, Wise Guy Reports projects. Prototyping will drive the largest share of this growth, with healthcare applications such as 3-D-printed knee and hip joints experiencing the highest growth rate. 

Prototyping in the automotive, aerospace, dental, discrete manufacturing and high tech industries is also being transformed by 3-D printing applications. Here’s a look at three ways 3-D printing is revolutionizing prototyping.

Lowering the Cost of Prototyping

Cutting costs is one of the most dramatic ways 3-D printing is revolutionizing prototyping. The additive nature of the 3-D printing process uses significantly less material than the subtractive process used in traditional prototyping molds, cutting materials costs. Three-dimensional printing also makes it easier to conceptualize design details, reducing costs resulting from mistakes and revisions that emerge during the prototyping process.

For example, Instrumentation Laboratory makes vitro diagnostic instruments and related medical supplies for use in hospitals and independent clinical labs. At one time, the company developed virtual design prototypes primarily by using CAD models. The non-physical nature of CAD limited the ability to conceptualize designs, which sometimes led to time-consuming, expensive revisions.

When Instrumentation Laboratory wanted to lower its prototyping costs, it turned to the Stratasys Fortus 3-D Production System. This allowed the development team to use fused deposition molding to extrude thermoplastics. Having a physical product in hand made it easier for the manufacturing team to spot ways to cut costs, enabling Instrumentation Laboratory to cut prototyping costs by 80 percent. This translated into a 40 percent reduction in manufacturing costs, producing savings of $600,000 a year over traditional methods, or $7.2 million over the 12-year lifecycle of the product.

The lower cost of prototyping enables 3-D printing providers to pass on savings to clients. For instance, Apple Rubber, which uses 3-D printing to provide customized o-rings made out of materials such as Viton, offers clients the opportunity to request free samples of prototypes before submitting bulk orders. This is possible because of the low cost of prototyping enabled by 3-D printing.

Accelerating the Prototyping Cycle

Another way 3-D printing is transforming prototyping is by shortening the time it takes to bring a prototype from the development phase to market. In the case of Instrumentation Laboratory, the advantage of having a physical 3-D prototype to work with instead of just a CAD model made the process of eliminating design flaws and optimizing prototypes much faster. In one case, the company was able to bring a prototype to market six months ahead of schedule, while saving $50,000 in mold reworking in the process.

Unilever is another company that has been able to dramatically reduce prototyping time by adopting 3-D printing. Since adopting Stratasys 3-D printing, the consumer goods company has seen a 40 percent drop in the time needed to produce molds for products such as bottle caps and toilet rim blocks. Prior to adopting 3-D printing, Unilever’s production team would typically wait several weeks for prototypes before being able to begin the traditional tooling process. Unilever prototyping specialist Stefano Cademartiri says the company can now design, print and test injection molds for different parts all in the same day.

Increasing Design Flexibility

Another way 3-D printing is revolutionizing prototyping is by vastly increasing the range of design flexibility available to product developers. Because 3-D-printed prototypes are based on a digital design, any structure that can be digitally conceived using 3-D coordinates is a potential option. Three-dimensional printing also allows designers to use new materials specifically designed for the technology, which can include anything from metals or ceramics to electronic components or even biomaterials.

One of the most exciting applications of 3-D printing’s flexibility has been the use of the technology to print customized body parts such as prosthetics. Surgeons at Miami’s Nicklaus Children’s Hospital have even been able to 3-D print a model of the heart of girl with a malformed aorta in order to make open heart surgery safer. By using a 3-D model of the girl’s heart, surgeons were able to determine the best angle to cut in order to restore her ability to breathe normally. The operation would have been too risky to perform without 3-D printing.