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Exploring Materials for Prototyping

Advantages of Aluminum, STEEL, Plastic, and More. How to Choose for Your Product

Every product begins with a prototype: a facsimile of the final version which provides valuable testing and feedback data ahead of a finalized production design.

For many products, an iterative prototyping process is required to test, refine, and re-test the design. This can be part of the proving phase (to demonstrate the product can work and be desirable in the marketplace), or as a form of creative experimentation (arriving at the best final design through rapid trial-and-error learning).

While no one with experience in product creation disputes the necessity of prototyping, there are a range of opinions as to the best materials for creating prototypes.

For example, is it desirable to use the same material you intend the final product will be made out of? Or is it better to create numerous prototypes quickly and cheaply before settling on an ideal choice?

Inventors and their product development partners must choose carefully to save time and money, and to ensure the prototyping process actually yields viable data for the eventual commercial design.

Fortunately, the advent of 3D printing and computer-controlled machining has allowed a wider range of materials to be used in prototyping than was previously practical.

While in the past more time-intensive methods such as injection molding, casting, and handmade fabrication limited the opportunities for experimentation, the automation and printing technologies of today allow for virtually any material to be utilized.

At LA NPDT, we use numerous rapid prototyping technologies to deliver results in a variety of materials, such as plastic (including ABS), metal (including aluminum), resin, ceramic, and even bamboo![1] In this article, we help you consider the best material for your project, as well as the best way to prototype using that material.

An Introduction to Rapid Prototyping

Exploring Materials for Prototyping, Advantages of ABS, Aluminum, Metal, Plastic, and More - And How to Choose for Your Product, LA NPDT

Rapid prototyping is defined as a group of related technologies which enables the quick fabrication of an object using computer aided design (CAD) data to direct the process.

A virtual model of the desired object is created in the computer, and this data then drives either computer-controlled machining tools, or additive layer manufacturing tools (also known as 3D printers), which shape the object out of a pre-determined material.

The history of rapid prototyping began in 1971 with a patent filed by Johannes F Gottwald of the Teletype Corporation (a division of AT&T), which envisioned a continuous inkjet material device that could form a metal fabrication.[2] In 1975, the first practical implementation was achieved when engineer Joseph Henry Condon, a luminary at Bell Labs, led a team that designed a system which digitized drawings of circuit boards and converted them into computer data, which could then be fed into a fabrication machine.

This early experiment, known as the Unix Circuit Design System (UCDS), launched the era of rapid prototype development.[3] The next leap forward occurred in 1980, when Japanese inventor Hideo Kodama filed the first 3D printing patent application, although the idea was never commercialized. In 1983, American inventor Charles Hull took up the cause, inventing the stereolithography apparatus (SLA).[4]

Simultaneous to Hull’s work in the US, French inventors Alain Le Méhauté, Olivier de Witte, and Jean Claude André filed a similar patent for the stereolithography process, but due to the patent being rejected (despite being filed before Hull’s) they were not able to continue their work.[5] The SLA process builds items in a layer-by-layer fashion, placing thin films of curable materials on top of each other, and then bonding them together into a solid polymer using ultraviolet light.[6]

In 1986, American inventor Carl Deckard filed a patent for another process, known as selective laser sintering (SLS), which he developed in cooperation with mechanical engineering processor Joe Beaman.

The SLS process uses a laser to fuse powder in a layer-by-layer process to build an object.[4][7] The final major innovation came in 1987 when American inventors Scott and Lisa Crump filed their patent for fused deposition modeling (FDM), which is also known as fused filament fabrication (FFF).[4]

The FDM process heats a polymer filament to a molten state, then extrudes the filament through a nozzle in layers to build up the object.[8] These three processes, along with computer numerical control machine tools (CNC), are the basis for rapid prototyping today. 3D printing (whether SLA, SLS, or FDM) and machine tooling (CNC) are complementary processes and are often used together.[9] However, while 3D printing is an additive process (i.e., building an object in layers), CNC machining is a subtractive process (cutting away unwanted material to form the desired object).[10]

Which Materials for Which Uses?

Exploring Materials for Prototyping, Advantages of ABS, Aluminum, Metal, Plastic, and More - And How to Choose for Your Product, LA NPDT

The main materials used in prototyping are various types of plastics and metals, each of which provide their own advantages. 

For plastics, acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) is a particularly outstanding material as it provides high durability, strength, and temperature resistance. ABS can be shaped using CNC machining, as well as being formed via 3D printing using the FDM or SLA processes. With regard to uses, ABS is ideally suited to objects which may be dropped or used in a rough manner. This has led to its usage in helmets, toys, handles, phone cases, and electrical enclosures. However, it is not food safe. If 3D printed, ABS can also warp during the cooling process and requires care during use as it produces hazardous fumes. Although a difficult material to work with, ABS is one of the best materials for prototyping.[10][11][12]

Among the most flexible plastics are thermoplastic elastomers (TPE). These are plastics which include rubber-like qualities and are suited for objects which must endure a great deal of wear and must bend, stretch, or compress. TPE can be both machined and 3D printed, but it is difficult and time-consuming to print. Some TPE variants, such as thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU) cannot be created with CNC, and therefore require 3D printing applications. TPU’s advantages over regular TPE include slightly higher durability and better resistance to cold temperatures. Ideal uses for TPE and TPU include toys, wearables, shoes, sports equipment, phone cases, household appliances, medical supplies, cables, and automotive parts.[10][12]

A versatile plastic which can be prepared either by CNC or 3D printing (particularly via SLS), polyamide (PD; also known as nylon) is excellent for both flexibility and durability, and provides outstanding strength. It is ideal for use in tools, mechanical parts, and especially for functional prototypes. This makes nylon prototypes perfect for many applications. However, not all formulations are food safe, so this must be checked carefully before selection.[12]

Finally, polypropylene (PP) is perfect for applications which require durability yet minimize weight. A food-safe material, it is used in packaging, textiles, and even banknotes.

Although it is possible to 3D print polypropylene, it is better suited to CNC machining, and it loses its food safety applicability if 3D printed due to the way the object is built (the thousands of layers created in 3D printing provide places for bacteria to live, whereas CNC shaping leaves a smooth surface which is bacteria resistant).[12]

Exploring Materials for Prototyping, Advantages of ABS, Aluminum, Metal, Plastic, and More - And How to Choose for Your Product, LA NPDT

For metals, although CNC is the most frequently used process, advances in metal filaments have allowed for 3D printing of some metallic materials as well. One of the best metals for prototyping is aluminum, thanks to its good protective qualities, low density, and the relative ease with which it can be shaped in manufacturing.

Usually formed via CNC, some aluminum filaments are now available for FDM purposes (although, because they are bonded with polycarbonates, they are better suited for non-functional applications).

Full 3D printing options for aluminum exist at an industrial scale and are ideal for printing interior chambers inside an object which can otherwise not be easily formed with machine tools. In fact, 3D-printed aluminum has been identified as one of the most promising emerging areas in advanced manufacturing, with heretofore impossible applications in rocketry, automotive, and aircraft uses.

Aluminum is widely used in packaging, mechanical parts, building materials, kitchen utensils, furniture, pipes, tools, and applications which require conductivity. It is also food safe.[10][12][13]

Another useful metal material for prototyping is stainless steel (particularly the 316L variety), which can be both 3D printed and CNC machined.

Highly versatile with uses including cutlery, surgical tools, and industrial parts, stainless steel resists corrosion and heat, is lightweight, and is also relatively inexpensive. However, only some varieties are food safe.[10][12][14]

Finally, although plastics and metals are the main materials for prototypes, other options also exist. These include resin, wood-filled filament (which combines PLA plastic with wood fiber, creating a wood-like material), and ceramic filament, all of which can be 3D printed and are offered by LA NPDT.

Some forms of resin can be biocompatible, meaning they are body-safe and can be used for select medical and dental purposes. Wood-filled filaments are suitable for decorative objects and for products which require a wood-like texture, with bamboo being a particularly frequent choice.

Ceramic filament can be used to create incredibly precise pottery printed to exacting specifications that are otherwise unmatchable, and select filament options can also produce objects with massive heat resistance.[12] While these specialty materials aren’t useful for every prototype, they provide a wider range of options for specialty products.

Explore Your Options, Creatively

Prototyping is a big step – it’s the leap from an intangible idea to a physical object you can use, experience, and touch. And the days where prototypes only represented a partial facsimile, rather than an early iteration of the product, failed to give inventors a true understanding of what their product could become.

Now, with the advantages of speed, choice, and affordability, you can create a prototype with the very same materials your final product could use. This isn’t just a way to refine design, but also to consider alternate materials that might not have occurred to you before.

LA NPDT has found that in designing products, the initial assumptions about which materials to use might not always be the best.

Take as an example the Qannati Egg of Life Watch Box, a product created for a luxury brand that demanded the best.

Qannati Watch, packaging prototype, Luxury watch box, Premium watch box, LA NPDT

Because of the versatility that prototyping now provides, the LA NPDT was able to construct several different prototypes out of different materials, all to give the brand more options for consideration.

Versions made out of wood, plastic, and aluminum were all tried, but ultimately a fourth option, resin, made the most sense. The different prototypes also utilized different rapid production techniques, including CNC for the wood and aluminum, and 3D printing for the plastic and resin.

All this was achieved within the client’s budget and timeframe, allowing for experimentation and careful consideration worthy of the brand’s reputation. This case study shows how allocating time for the prototyping process can save work and money later on – just imagine if one of the initial versions, say the aluminum option, was rushed straight into production, only for the client to realize too late that it was too expensive to scale.

But this example also shows how being open to a wide variety of materials, and thinking creatively about what works best, can yield unexpected results. Today, the box LA NPDT helped create for Qannati is highlighted as a standout feature of the brand’s presentation in their marketing materials.[15]

Whatever material you choose for your prototype, know that you have an experienced and capable partner at your side with LA NPDT.

Whether it’s made out of plastic, metal, or something more exotic, we’ll help you pick the right material and provide you with a prototype that brings your product vibrantly to life.

REFERENCES

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LA New Product Development Team is a comprehensive product development firm, offering services ranging from idea generation and product design to manufacturing and marketing. LANPDT collaborates with startups and established businesses to transform concepts into market-ready innovations.

Thank you for choosing LA New Product Development Team for your Prior Art Search.

Please fill out the form to submit your order.

Upon successful payment, you will receive an email with a Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA) and a questionnaire regarding your product idea.

Your privacy and security are paramount to us, so rest assured that your information will be handled with the utmost confidentiality.

Step 1: Fill in your contact and billing details.
Step 2: Review your order summary.
Step 3: Submit payment.

After your payment is processed, please check your email for the NDA and questionnaire. Completing these documents promptly will allow us to start your Prior Art Search without delay.


If you have any questions or need assistance with your order, please don’t hesitate to contact us.

318-200-0526 | hello@lanpdt.com

Thank you for choosing LA New Product Development Team for your Prior Art Search.

Please fill out the form to submit your order.

Upon successful payment, you will receive an email with a Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA) and a questionnaire regarding your product idea.

Your privacy and security are paramount to us, so rest assured that your information will be handled with the utmost confidentiality.

Step 1: Fill in your contact and billing details.
Step 2: Review your order summary.
Step 3: Submit payment.

After your payment is processed, please check your email for the NDA and questionnaire. Completing these documents promptly will allow us to start your Prior Art Search without delay.


If you have any questions or need assistance with your order, please don’t hesitate to contact us.

318-200-0526 | hello@lanpdt.com

Thank you for choosing LA New Product Development Team for your Prior Art Search.

Please fill out the form to submit your order.

Upon successful payment, you will receive an email with a Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA) and a questionnaire regarding your product idea.

Your privacy and security are paramount to us, so rest assured that your information will be handled with the utmost confidentiality.

Step 1: Fill in your contact and billing details.
Step 2: Review your order summary.
Step 3: Submit payment.

After your payment is processed, please check your email for the NDA and questionnaire. Completing these documents promptly will allow us to start your Prior Art Search without delay.


If you have any questions or need assistance with your order, please don’t hesitate to contact us.

318-200-0526 | hello@lanpdt.com

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