Making a prototype used to require lots of money, lots of time, and working with a machine shop or engineering firm.

Even if you were using cheaper materials than the ones you intended to use in your final product, molding those materials, measuring them, and assembling them – especially for just one single unit – could easily become quite pricey.

But then, along came 3D printing, and it changed the prototyping process drastically. Instead of taking weeks, getting a prototype made could now be done in just a day or two, and for much less money than before.

Since 3D printing has become mainstream, making a prototype using this method has come to be known as rapid prototyping – for obvious reasons. If you have a CAD, or computer-aided design, file, you can email it to your manufacturing company of choice, no matter where in the world they’re located (as long as you don’t mind paying shipping fees, that is!).

In fact, you can even make the prototype yourself if you have access to a 3D printer and are comfortable with using it. In that case, your prototype can be finished in as long as it takes to upload your design and press print.

This development has been a huge boon for product designers and inventors everywhere – even though currently, rapid prototypes do still have some limitations. So what’s next for product prototyping?

Printing in a wider variety of materials

As of now, most of the 3D printers out there print items out of plastics, although metals, ceramics, and glass are gradually becoming more available.

Plastic can be a great material in that it’s lightweight, durable and inexpensive; however, if you intend for your final product to be created out of metal, for example, or another material, the plastic version will have some drawbacks. You won’t be able to get a good feel for the product’s weight, for example, and the appearance will obviously be very different.

On the other hand, if printing out of plastic is the only option you can find or can afford, even a plastic prototype will give you a vastly better idea of how your product will look and function than skipping a prototype altogether. Given the choice between no prototype and a 3D printed plastic one, choosing a plastic one is – in our book – always the right choice.

The way 3D printing technology is progressing, however, you won’t have to make this choice for long. Technologists are currently working hard on developing printers that can print in more complex, composite materials with medical or electronic applications. For example, in the near(ish) future, you may be able to print electronics and sensors all from one single 3D printer.

Developments are also being made in expanding the ability to print in glass, metal, and ceramics. This will make rapid prototyping even more useful and widespread.

Moving 3D printing from the factory to the home

Although there are enthusiasts who already have home 3D printers, for most people, their projected use of the item just doesn’t justify a price tag of $1,000 and up. (Smaller 3D printers for hobbyists are available for less, but they don’t yet have the capabilities needed to make a really good prototype.)

However, as the technology becomes more widespread the price is steadily decreasing, making the machines more accessible to consumers.

Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the future will include a 3D printer in every home – although some technologists believe this will be the case – but it certainly means that the technology will become a lot more available to the average person (including the average product designer). Maybe we’ll see neighborhood 3D printing stations popping up along the same model as the community garden. Neighbors could buy a share in the machine to help pay for materials and upkeep, in exchange for access to its services.

And what does this mean for prototyping? Well, putting aside the fact that 3D printing has the power to disrupt the entire manufacturing and shipping industries – that’s a whole other story – it means that product designers will most likely have to rely less on global partners to fulfill their manufacturing needs.

Instead of needing a specialized factory in Asia to make your product, you’ll be able to call up a location a few cities or states away. Any factory that has the type of software and 3D printing capabilities you need will be able to do the work for you, and at a more affordable price than the current manufacturing system. This will have a huge effect on entrepreneurship and innovation, not to mention the environment.

In the meantime, if you need to obtain a prototype for your new product, Pivot can help you. We offer prototyping services including rapid prototyping and have connections around the globe and domestically that can help you create your product quickly and affordably. Contact us today!