Have you ever heard the story behind the household cleaner Formula 409®? It’s a tribute to the tenacity of two Detroit-based scientists. It took them 409 attempts until they hit upon a cleaning formula that worked the way they wanted.
The journey of Formula 409®’s inventors is not an anomaly. It took Sir Tom Dyson, inventor of the dual cyclone bagless vacuum cleaner, exactly 5,126 iterations to achieve his desired result. And although the number of iterations a new product goes through can vary significantly—due to design team expertise, the complexity of the product, the industry, etc.—almost all products go through a trial-and-error phase before success is achieved. And all this experimentation can be costly. Fortunately, inventors have an ace up their sleeve: prototyping, and more recently, rapid prototyping.

The efficiencies of rapid prototyping support iterative design and therefore more highly refined components.

What is a Prototype?

A prototype is a draft version of a product or design which allows the creator to test and improve a concept or process before releasing a final version. For example, an inventor might share a prototype with a manufacturer for help in modifying and testing the design. In electronics, one might build an actual version of a theoretical circuit to verify that it works. And if it doesn’t—which at the beginning of the design process, is often the case—the prototype provides a physical platform for debugging.

What is Rapid Prototyping?

Creating a prototype saves time and money; however, traditional prototyping can still be costly and time consuming. Fortunately, manufacturers now have rapid prototyping. As its name implies, rapid prototyping is a way to quickly fabricate a prototype to aid designers in visualizing, redesigning, and developing a product before mass production. Rapid prototyping differs from traditional prototyping in that it emphasizes speed, efficiency, and flexibility.

Rapid prototyping is made possible by new advances in technology, such as the FlexBoard, which was developed by MIT researchers. The FlexBoard is a flexible breadboard that allows rapid prototyping of objects with interactive sensors, actuators, and displays on curved and formable surfaces. Because of the FlexBoard’s design, it allows for more rapidly customizable interfaces.

A man and a woman, standing at a desk in a manufacturing facility, looking at a laptop computer screen.
With rapid prototyping, designers and engineers can immediately update designs based on real-world testing.

Other advanced prototyping technologies include computer-aided design (CAD) and additive manufacturing, more commonly known as 3D printing. Almost all rapid prototyping involves CAD, a technology that relies on a computer to help in the creation, modification, analysis, and optimization of a design. CAD allows for the design and production processes to blend seamlessly, since an electronic output file from the software leads directly to the part production, with changes able to be made at any time during the workflow. 

The auto industry was among the first to embrace rapid prototyping, but other industries were not far behind. Today, electronics manufacturers are creating rapid prototype circuit boards for a wide variety of applications, particularly for products that have no leeway for error—such as defense, medical, aerospace, and robotics devices.

Why is Rapid Prototyping So Important?

The time and effort needed to get a sophisticated electronics product to market is legendary, and the growing complexity of these devices isn’t making it any easier. But a concurrent development is. CAD was one of the first rapid prototyping technologies developed, and it has sped up the development process for new products considerably. Now the addition of a newer technology, 3D printing, is cranking up the speed even more.

And that’s a good thing, because semiconductors—and the devices they enable—are evolving more quickly than ever. Customers now expect significant improvements to existing products on a regular basis. And new products have to dazzle. Rapid prototyping is what makes that possible, by optimizing development and production in seven important ways:

3D printing allows designers to create non-planar electronics with unique form factors.
  • Efficiency: Rapid prototyping techniques provide more efficiency during the R&D process. With traditional prototyping, engineers frequently wait weeks to receive a prototype from a short-run manufacturer—only to discover the need to start again. With rapid prototyping, designers and engineers are now able to produce prototypes in a matter of hours so they can immediately update designs based on test results.
  • Cost-effectiveness: The increased efficiency of rapid prototyping also saves money. With rapid prototyping, companies can test boards and find problems before a production run—saving both material and employee time. Furthermore, rapid prototyping accelerates the testing and verification process, reducing the overall manufacturing and design costs for a project.
  • Better Components: Iterative design is a cyclical methodology for prototyping, testing, analyzing, and refining. This methodology enables manufacturers to produce the best electronic components possible. In the past, it was not always possible to produce an accurate prototype board that allowed designers to determine how best to modify a board layout for optimal performance. The efficiencies of rapid prototyping, however, support iterative design and therefore more highly refined components.
  • Fewer Supply Chain Challenges: Supply chain challenges have affected many industries, including electronics. You can’t create a prototype if you don’t have the materials. Fortunately, additive manufacturing technology provides a simple solution: create it yourself on a 3D printer.
  • Flexibility in Materials: Additive manufacturing systems are more flexible with regards to materials than tools typically used in traditional prototyping. The 3D printers used with rapid prototyping can accommodate a wide variety of materials, such as plastic, powders, resins, metal, and carbon fiber.
  • Flexibility in Design: Designers are no longer limited to creating rigid planar PCBs. Because of its layering properties, 3D printing allows designers to create non-planar electronics with unique form factors, as well as integrate functionality on to a single board. Rapid prototyping also allows testing of complex designs that would otherwise be costly and time-intensive to produce. For example, with a perfboard or a stripboard there are soldering limitations and track destruction challenges that don’t exist with rapid prototyping.
  • Small Batch Runs: With traditional prototyping, it’s often not practical to produce a small batch of PCBs. With rapid prototyping, on the other hand, it’s feasible to produce limited batches of 5 to 100 units.

The Future of Rapid Prototyping for Electronics

Innovative new technologies, such as advancements in CAD and other design tools, will continue to increase the use of rapid prototyping. And as more robust systems and materials for additive manufacturing become available—and more affordable—rapid prototyping of electronics will become more widely adopted and better integrated with traditional manufacturing and assembly steps.

These developments are already well under way. Artificial intelligence (AI), for example, is expanding into multiple disciplines, and the area of rapid prototyping is no exception. As AI improves, it will continue to be integrated into rapid prototype development, with the ultimate goal of more data-driven decisions and seamless testing.

How far can this trend go?

Despite all the advances in CAD, additive manufacturing, and AI, full automation of electronics manufacturing remains a distant goal, according to All About Circuits, one of the world’s largest, independent online communities for electrical engineers. That said, it is certain that strategies like rapid prototyping will continue to move the industry forward and remove previous barriers. As with most developments in electronics manufacturing, the limits of rapid prototyping technologies have yet to be reached.

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