(Source: Stratasys)

3D printing technology makes functional, beautiful product prototypes accessible to everyone. Learn how to get started now.

If you've ever tried to pitch a great idea for a new product or invention, you know that your passionate description just isn't enough. A detailed sketch or video is better, but nothing wins people over like a prototype they can hold in their hands.

Today, 3D printing is the best way to create product prototypes and models, and for good reason. It's faster, cheaper, more accurate, and has better presentation value than foam cutting, clay molding, or any of the manual processes once used to create many handmade concept models.

Product prototypes 3D printed on professional 3D printers (Source: Stratasys)

A good prototype gives your product more appeal that is sure to impress your boss or investors. Plus, since 3D printing is so easy and affordable, there's no longer an excuse to use tape and glue.

3D printing, whether you do it yourself or use an online service, allows you to get your idea to market faster. Depending on your product, you can print a working prototype in a few hours, allowing you to test functionality and aesthetic appeal, redesign and print new iterations the same day.

In this guide, you'll learn everything you need to know to 3D print your product prototypes, including which materials to choose, whether it makes sense to buy your own 3D printer (and which one), and how to choose and use 3D printing services. to get your prototype quickly printed and delivered to your door.

Prototypes for product development 

Lush Cosmetics prototypes new product designs with 3D printing on Formlabs 3D printers (Source: Formlabs)

Long before you get to the point of presenting your idea, you test whether or not it will actually work. In theory, your product will change the world. First, testing it will show where it needs more work.

3D printing allows you to create great-looking models, but also fully functional, working prototypes strong enough to be tested in real-world conditions. Hands-on testing is the primary step in uncovering the problems you may encounter in manufacturing your product and how customers will use it. Real-life testing and analysis help you bring better products to market.

Many product designers 3D print prototypes of the initial design in basic plastic, then move on to engineered materials or even 3D printed metal for functional testing.

Let's look at some examples.

3D printers, such as the Zortrax Inventure, can 3D print movable mechanisms as a single part, speeding up functional testing (Source: Zortrax)

Full size and functionality

Black Diamond Equipment makes innovative climbing, ski and mountain gear known for comfort, durability and performance. All of their products go through a rigorous design, testing and iteration process before they hit the market.

The company has used 3D printing in its design workflow for years to create prototypes or scale models in-house. Larger full-scale prototypes were often outsourced to a prototyping company, as the standard size of desktop 3D printers was too small until they discovered Formlabs Form 3L, a build-volume stereolithography (SLA) 3D printer that can handle prototyping human scale of products such as helmets and a climbing shovel, shown in the photo below.

Black Diamond tested its trail shovel design as a prototype in the 3D full size , printed on Formlabs Form 3 (Source: Formlabs)

Available iterations

Self-employed entrepreneur Khalid Bou-Rabee took a different approach to see if his new home weight training invention would actually work.

“Computer simulations can be very accurate, but nothing can replace real-world testing. I needed prototypes,” he told All3DP.

At first, the young entrepreneur thought he would order a stainless steel prototype, but quickly changed his mind when he was quoted a price of over $1,000 for a single CNC-machined metal part. He then turned to a 3D printing services marketplace that provides instant quotes for every digital design uploaded. Through this, Bou-Rabee discovered a steel-tough polymer alternative and found a 3D printing partner that could afford to produce multiple iterations, allowing him to test his product and bring it to market within a year.

Functional testing often means creating a prototype out of the same material the final product will be made in, such as carbon fiber or stainless steel. With the ability to rapidly 3D print stainless steel parts both in-house and through on-demand services, design teams can produce functional prototypes for testing, such as the 3D printed aluminum bicycle frame from Canyon pictured below.

Engineers from bicycle company Canyon 3D printed an aluminum bicycle frame through service company Materialize (Source: BIKE Magazin )

In another example of metal 3D printed prototyping, Shukla Medical manufactures surgical instruments using 17-4 PH stainless steel on a Markforged 3D printer. Stainless steel is the same material as many of the finished products. These metal instrument prototypes go into the hands of surgeons for evaluation. "The surgeon can visualize using it in the actual incision and can tell us if it feels the right way in their hands," says Zack Sweitzer, the company's product development manager. "Being able to prototype more efficiently and bring finished products to market faster will keep us at the forefront of the industry."

3D printing materials for prototyping

Clear resin for transparent parts from Nexa3D (Source: Nexa3D)

The materials you can 3D print your prototype in are virtually limitless, spanning soft silicones, metals, strong plastics, conductive, durable wood, and even chocolate. There are thousands of 3D printing materials available and methods for 3D printing with multiple materials at once.

If you are not sure which materials would be best for your prototype, we at 3MG Bonev Ltd. we will explain the different materials, their properties and what they are most often used for, help you choose the most suitable one for you and offer you the opportunity to buy it from us.

Common 3D Printing Materials: 

  • PLA Plastic
  • TPU (flexible)
  • Stainless Steel
  • Carbon Fiber
  • Flame Retardant Material
  • Nylon

Below we lay out the basics in a quick diagram.

PropertyMaterialsCost3D Printing Technology*
FlexibleTPU, ResinAffordableFDM, SLS
DurableNylon, Carbon FiberModerateFDM, SLS
SustainableRecycled PETG, Recycled PLAAffordableFDM
Heat resistantFlame Resistant PLAAffordableFDM, SLS
Soft to the touchTPU, Flexible ResinModerateFDM, SLA
ColorfulResinExpensivePolyjet, Inkjet

*technologies described below

Types of 3D printing for prototyping 

This prototype hand drill design, printed with SLS technology by Formlabs, was strong enough to hold real mechanical parts and perform functional tests (Source: Formlabs)

There are more than a dozen types of 3D printing. All of these are used for rapid prototyping. Finding the perfect match for your product is a matter of balancing cost, speed, material, part complexity, and whether you want to print it yourself or outsource it. In general, the most used prototyping technology in plastics is fused deposition modeling (FDM) because it is the easiest and cheapest.

If you outsource your prototype, you may be asked how you want it printed. Below we look at the main ones.

Must3D printing methodprice
Accurate detailSLA, SLSAffordable
Metal partsFDM, SLMModerate
Multiple partsSLA, SLS, MJFModerate
FDM Printers by UltiMaker (Source: UltiMaker)

Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM)

FDM, which uses rolls of plastic filament as a material, is the most widely used 3D printing method for prototyping due to the variety of materials available and the low cost. Whether you buy a machine or order through a workshop, FDM is the most economical. But FDM is also an industrial method. Production-grade FDM machines can print with engineered materials like carbon fiber with fine detail and super strength, so don't think of it as the cheapest option. You can also print metal using this technology and metal filament, which is actually plastic filament with metal powder.

If you want to buy your own FDM 3D printer, check out our online store: https://shop.3mgbonev.com/category/3d-printeri-materiali-i-rezervni-chasti

D printed prototype on the left, final product on the right. 
Prototype printed on Formlabs Form 3 SLA (Source: Formlabs)

Stereolithography (SLA)

For parts that need to have slightly smoother surfaces ( than FDM ) straight from the printer or more fine details, product designers often turn to 3D printers that use stereolithography (SLA) technology, also called 3D resin printing. These machines use liquid resin as the base material and are the preferred choice for transparent products and parts with fine features, such as jewelry.

As with FDM, there are budget, studio, and industrial versions of resin 3D printers capable of working with a variety of materials ranging from durable to flexible to industrial. If you want to buy your own, we will offer you the world leader Formlabs: https://shop.3mgbonev.com/category/3d-printeri-formlabs

Selective Laser Sintering (SLS)

Source: Formlabs

SLS, also called laser powder fusion, is a 3D printing method that uses a laser to melt powdered polymers layer by layer. You will refer to this method for functional prototypes that you intend to install in engines or machines and put them to the test. SLS produces finely detailed parts from materials such as carbon fiber-filled nylon that can withstand harsh conditions.

SLS printers can print many parts at once, so it's also the perfect choice when you need a dozen parts or when you want to print very few different iterations at once. SLS is used for final parts as well as prototypes, making these machines popular in machine shops and end manufacturers.

Metal 3D printing

When Porsche needed to prototype its concept electric motor housing for electric cars, it chose to 3D print it on the SLM Solutions NXG XII 600 3D printer (Source: SLM)

If your final product will be made of metal, then you need a metal prototype. Each of the 3D metal printing technologies will be more expensive than the polymer options, but will be faster and cheaper than any traditional method of manufacturing metal parts, such as casting or machining.

Compared to stainless steel CNC milling or injection molding, 3D printing is ideal for prototyping because there is no waste of material or the need to create a mold or casting. Additionally, there are no minimum quantities when ordering metal 3D printed parts from a service provider.

Final prototypes for presentation to customers

This prototype Vision electric race car features 15 3D printed parts, including the nose wing and rear wings, which were made on a Bilder large-format 3D printer (Source: Builder )

You have perfected your product. It works as expected and now it's time to 3D print the final version. This is where full-color prototyping often comes into play, along with various post-processing options to make your prototype look as much like your final version as possible.

Your final product probably won't be just one color. Unfortunately, most 3D printing methods only print with one or two materials (in one or two colors) at a time. Although some can print in four or six colors at once.

If you want a full-color prototype, you have two options: paint or full-color 3D printing.

Painting and post-processing

Most 3D printing materials take dye very well and there are different techniques. We have detailed examples around the web of what you need to know about smoothing, priming and painting your prototypes, and how to get crystal clear parts that represent "glass".

A multi-color, multi-material product prototype 3D printed on a Stratasys PolyJet J850 (Source: Stratasys)

Full color from the 3D printer

If you're not handy with a brush, there are full-color 3D printers that offer thousands of color options and can even precisely match Pantones. There are only a few companies that make full-color 3D printers, so if you're using a service, look for Polyjet printing from Stratasys, ColorJet from 3D Systems, or Inkjet from Mimaki.

Stratasys' PolyJet, for example, is used by product designers around the world to prototype finished products in accurate colors and even textures. Just look at this functional perfume bottle prototype above, printed as a single piece on a Stratasys J850.

Full-color 3D printers produce amazing results, but they are expensive. Ordering from a repair shop makes this technology much more affordable. 

Buy a 3D printer or outsource? 

UltiMaker 3D printers at L'Oréal's prototyping lab help the company respond more quickly to product trends (Source: L'Oréal)

Creating internal prototypes

The initial cost of a 3D printer can seem daunting, but depending on how much you prototype, the machine can pay for itself in just a few weeks or months when you compare it to what you would spend on outsourcing or alternative manufacturing methods.

There are hundreds of great 3D printer brands out there. You can start 3D printing yourself with these machines practically immediately after taking them out of the box. Also, a good, basic machine can only cost a few hundred dollars.

More sophisticated machines that will print with more durable materials start at around $3000 and can also be very easy to use but require some training which we can provide.

Today, companies that frequently create prototypes, such as industrial design firms, have 3D printers in the office as standard equipment.

"At this time in product design, 3D printing has become a tool of the trade," says David Block, director of Studio Redeye in Brooklyn, New York. "If you don't have a 3D printer and you're in the product development space, you're behind," echoes Jonathan Tai, co-founder and partner at HatchDuo in San Francisco.

But which machine should I buy? 

3MG Bonev Ltd. will help you with that too. Some technologies we use every day, test them, track them, talk to the people who use them.

Sculpteo Manufacturing Base (Source: Sculpteo)

Export your rapid prototyping

Getting your prototype 3D printed today is as easy as uploading your digital file to a service and then waiting for your doorbell to ring. You literally don't need to know anything about 3D printing. But of course, a little knowledge can lead to a better choice of materials and technologies.

When it comes to material costs, it's not a stretch to say that an item printed in PLA will cost significantly less than the same item in an engineered material. 

Although 3D printing services are highly automated and use sophisticated software to facilitate each stage of production, there is still some manual labor involved. For example, after printing, the parts are cleaned, sorted and packaged. The final price of a printed item reflects this labor, part of the "service fee" charged per item or order.

Another factor to consider in understanding how 3D printing services price is finishing: the sanding, painting, polishing, and other post-processes that help get the most out of your 3D prints. However, since these are often done manually, they will increase the final price.

In processes like SLS, the biggest driver of 3D printing costs is neither material nor labor, but machine space. 3D printing services stack models from different orders together to print as many parts as possible in one build. Hollow parts can sometimes accommodate smaller parts. This process makes 3D printing more cost effective for 3D printing services. So the format of your 3D file can directly affect how 3D printing services are priced.

Of course, you need someone to deliver the finished product to you. It makes sense to look at shipping costs as they can vary greatly. 


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