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What Is a 3D Print Prototype?

Storyboards, brainstorming, and product testing are just a few steps in the process of developing exceptional products. However, before you mass-produce your final product, you must test a prototype. Prototypes ensure that you meet the needs of your consumers and that you don’t have any fatal flaws in your product. In addition, a 3D print prototype can provide a complete visualization to test the functionality of your product before production.

What Is a 3D Print Prototype?

A sample, or prototype, of your product, allows you to compare feedback and improve your designs. Conventional prototypes often involve hand-drawn sketches or models that are made out of wood, clay, wire, or other easy-to-assemble materials. This can be costly and time-consuming. Instead, 3D-printed products are created via computer numerical control, or CNC, ensuring you can easily collect data and make changes quickly at earlier stages of production.

3D Printing

3D printing is an additive manufacturing method. During this process, materials are continuously added until a specific shape is formed. One of the most common applications of 3D printing is rapid prototyping. Rapid prototyping offers excellent flexibility regarding speed, cost, and material selection for your prototype. There are several options available when you are looking to print your 3D prototype, including metal and plastic printing.

Selective Laser Sintering

The first 3D printing process available is selective laser sintering or SLS. SLS works by melting nylon-based powders together into a solid plastic form. SLS parts are made from real thermoplastic materials and are durable. This makes them great for functional testing because they can support hinges and snap-fits.

SLS does not require support structures. The entire build platform can be used to nest multiple parts in a single build. This is great when you need higher part quantities. Many SLS parts can be used to prototype designs that need to be injection-molded. These parts do have rougher surface finishes, but they are quite strong.


The second 3D printing process is Stereolithography or SLA. SLA is the original industrial 3D printing process. Stereolithography printers are excellent at creating parts that have extreme detail. In addition, these parts have smooth surface finishes and tight tolerances. This means that the products look nice and aid in function while you test fit and assembly.

Stereolithography is often used in the medical industry. SLA is regularly used in anatomical models and microfluidics. SLA printers use a tank filled with liquid resin. The platform raises and lowers while using UV light to harden each layer. This process repeats until the model is completed. SLA is recommended for products that need high-resolution prototypes.


The third method used for 3D printed prototypes is PolyJet. This plastic 3D printing process can fabricate parts with multiple properties. You can use various colors and materials for a fantastic finished product. Designers can use PolyJet for prototyping elastomeric or overmolded parts. If you need a prototype that is single or made of rigid plastic, stick with SLA or SLS. However, if you need overmolding or silicone, go with polyjet.

Digital Light Processing

The fourth method for 3D printing is DLP, digital light processing. DLP and SLA are similar. Both of these processes cure liquid resin using light. However, DLP uses a digital light projector screen rather than a UV laser. This ingenious process ensures that a DLP 3D printer can simultaneously image an entire layer of your product build. This results in a faster build time.

Digital light processing is frequently used for 3D print prototypes. The DLP process involves higher throughput, making it suitable for a low-volume production run of plastic parts.

Multi Jet Fusion

The fifth method for 3D print prototyping is multi-jet fusion or MJF. MJF builds functional parts using nylon power, similar to SLS. However, rather than utilizing a laser to sinter the powder as SLS does, MJF uses an inkjet array. The inkjet array applies fusing agents to the powder bed, after which a heating element passes over to fuse each layer.

MJF creates results with consistent mechanical properties with a fantastic surface finish. MFJ also produces your prototype faster than SLS can, which lowers your production cost.

Fused Deposition Modeling

The sixth method of 3D printing is FDM, fused deposition modeling, a typical desktop printing tech. The FDM printer works by layering plastic filaments onto the build platform. One of the most significant benefits of fused deposition modeling is its cost-effectiveness and quickness. However, FDM does not create prototypes that are as functional or strong as other 3D printing methods.

Direct Metal Laser Sintering

The first 3D metal print prototyping method is direct metal laser sintering, DMLS. Direct metal laser sintering reduces metal and multi-part assemblies into lightweight single-component parts. This results in a product that has internal channels and hollow features. These dense parts make DMLS a viable method for prototyping and production.

The direct metal laser sintering process results in metal components with complex geometries. Therefore, DMLS is excellent for medical applications, especially when your product has to mimic organic structures.

Electron Beam Melting

The second 3D metal printing technology available is electron beam melting or EBM. Electron beam melting utilizes an electron beam controlled with electromagnetic coils that melt metal powders. The temperature changes depending on the material in use, and the entire printing bed is heated and in vacuum-like conditions during the 3D build.

Considerations Before You Print

Before printing your prototype, there are several things to consider. The first is budget. Understanding your budget limitations will help you choose the most suitable printing method for you. The second consideration is what mechanical requirements your prototype has. Every 3D printing method creates a different result and understanding your mechanical requirements and cosmetic needs will help you choose correctly.

The next consideration is material selection. Does your prototype need to be molded in rigid plastic or in more flexible silicone? Maybe you need a prototype printed with one of the 3D metal printing processes. The last thing you need to consider is what your geometric requirements are. Knowing what your prototype requires ensures you get the final product you deserve.

When Should You Use Rapid Prototyping

Rapid prototyping is a fantastic choice for your product, especially with relatively low part quantities. Think somewhere between one and fifty. 3D print prototyping is also excellent when testing products with complex geometry, such as internal cooling channels. There is no set time when you should use rapid prototyping during a design process.

3D print prototypes can be used at any stage of the design process. For example, these models can be used to test functionality or check a product for design flaws. They can also help during the brainstorming processes and are excellent for checking the aesthetic properties of your product.

Save Time and Money

Additive manufacturing, like 3D printing, is a much cheaper process than many traditional techniques used to produce prototypes. This ensures that you don’t exceed the budget while testing your product, putting you at a significant advantage. In addition to its cost-effectiveness, 3D printing processes help you focus on the essential parts of your project rather than constantly double or triple-checking your budget.

3D print prototyping also saves time. 3D printing your prototypes ensures you can make as many versions of your product as you need. The actual process of 3D printing is also faster than traditional methods. You don’t have to wait for the creation of a mold or wait while the injection molding process is completed. Rapid prototyping accelerates your entire product development.

Multiple Designs

3D printing your prototype creates objects from digital 3D models using 3D modeling software. This means you can make all the designs that your heart desires. Those designs can be simple or as complicated and intricate as you want. The 3D printing process allows you to create projects from scratch, allowing you to visualize and adjust the model whenever needed.

In addition to prototyping, 3D printing can be used to create some final products. There is no end to what you can print using 3D printers, from personalized home items, logos, key chains, automotive parts, and prototypes, to figurines or gadgets. Your imagination is the only limit to 3D-printed products.

File Formats

Most 3D printing methods use .stl files when setting up and building your prototypes. CAD files can be converted to .stl format. However, you want to use native CAD software rather than converting your file inside other software programs. The best products will be created using .stl files with only one shell and no unshared edges. It is also a good idea to note the original units of measurement to help reduce potential printing errors.

3D print prototypes are excellent, especially in the early stages of development when ideas are tossed around between colleagues. At other times all you need to problem solve an issue is a model to stare at. Contact us at Midwest Design LLC, where we can help you with anything from creating custom decals to fully realized 3D prototypes.