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Thursday, January 28, 2010

Rapid prototyping (RP)

Rapid prototyping (RP), is the automatic construction of physical objects using 3D printing technologies. 
The first techniques for rapid prototyping became available in the 1980s. Back then, a prototype served as a basis for discussion but could not be used for anything “serious”, i.e. in a real production environment. Today, the range of RP technologies has extended and they are used for a much wider number of applications. RP technologies are also increasingly being used to manufacture production quality parts in relatively small numbers. 

For those unfamiliar with rapid prototyping technologies, it is easy to depict this technology by comparing it with familiar inkjet printing. Instead of building up text, this technology actually constructs a 3D object starting from a computer file by adding one slice on top of another using (semi-)liquid or powdered material. You will find a more detailed explanation in the specific technology sections on our website.
The past decades have witnessed a need for new manufacturing technologies that build parts on a layer-by-layer basis. These RP techniques reduce manufacturing time for parts – even the most complex ones – from days, weeks or months to hours. We don’t call it RAPID for no reason.

An example of real object replication by means of 3D scanning and 3D printing: the gargoyle model on the left was digitally acquired by using a 3D scanner and the produced 3D data was processed using MeshLab. The resulting digital 3D model, shown on the laptop's screen, was used by a rapid prototyping machine to create a real resin replica of the original object.Standard applications include design visualization, prototyping/CAD, metal casting, architecture, education, geospatial, healthcare, entertainment/retail, etc. Other applications would include reconstructing fossils in paleontology, replicating ancient and priceless artifacts in archaeology, reconstructing bones and body parts in forensic pathology and reconstructing heavily damaged evidence acquired from crime scene investigations.

More recently, the use of 3D printing technology for artistic expression has been suggested. Artists like Bathsheba Grossman or Carlo H. Sequin use various rapid prototyping processes in many of their works.

3D printing technology is currently being studied by biotechnology firms and academia for possible use in tissue engineering applications where organs and body parts are built using inkjet techniques. Layers of living cells are deposited onto a gel medium and slowly built up to form three dimensional structures. Several terms have been used to refer to this field of research: Organ printing, bio-printing, and computer-aided tissue engineering among others.

The use of 3D scanning technologies allow the replication of real objects without the use of molding techniques, that in many cases can be more expensive, more difficult, or too invasive to be performed; particularly with precious or delicate cultural heritage artifacts.


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