Nike rapid prototyping. Source: Nike
Nike rapid prototyping. Source: Nike

The process of creating prototypes has changed a lot over the last decade. In recent years, 3D printing has become a major player in rapid prototyping. The term rapid prototyping is used to define the process of taking a concept and turning it into a tangible product in a short amount of time. With 3D printing, that amount of time can be as little as a few hours.

The shoe industry, particularly Nike and Adidas, are benefiting from the quick turnaround of rapid prototyping using 3D printing technologies. “Within six months we were able to go through 12 rounds of prototype iterations that we fully tested, and ultimately we were able to make super dramatic improvements to our products,” said Shane Kohatsu, Innovation Director for Nike.

Adidas reported they previously needed a team of 12 technicians to create a prototype by hand, and it took four to six weeks to evaluate the prototype. The company has reduced the number of technicians to two and the evaluation period is now one or two days with 3D printing.

It isn’t just shoe companies using 3D printing for rapid prototyping. Rye DeGarmo, Engineering Manager for AGCO, says 3D printers save the farm equipment company significant amounts of money. “For example, an aluminum prototype could cost between $5,000 and $7,000 per version, while the plastic part can be created by the printer at a cost of $1,000 to $2,000 each for the needed materials,” DeGarmo said in an interview with Farm Industry News. “And it takes about a day for a prototype part to be created by the printer.”

In addition to speed, cost savings make 3D printing a valuable tool for prototyping. In the past, the prototyping process entailed creating a mold and then filling the mold with injected plastic. Each time there was a change in the design, it required a new mold. This process is expensive and out of the price range for many who don’t have the funds to invest in their idea and don’t have a prototype to recruit investors.

3D printing, with its lower cost, is a viable solution for small businesses and just about anyone with a good idea. “Using a rapid-prototyping approach, you can construct a demo in your kitchen or garage and test it with consumers. Honestly. It doesn’t need to cost thousands to see if your idea could be a winner,” said Susan Kuchinskas, with Business2Community.com.

Companies and individuals don’t need to invest in an expensive 3D printer to turn an idea into a physical object; they can go through a 3D printing service. These services offer 3D printing in a number of materials that best match the material of the finished product. In order to print a prototype, it requires a 3D computer-aided design (CAD) model of the design. For non-professional designers, there are free CAD programs like SketchUp and Tinkercad to help design the product. Furthermore, some 3D printing services also have a design team to help realize the idea if the inventor doesn’t get into the design work. In this case, a drawing on a napkin could be a good start to building a prototype.