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Rapid prototyping

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Automatic construction of physical objects using solid freeform fabrication. The first techniques for rapid prototyping became available in the late 1980s and were used to produce models and prototype parts. Today, they are used for a much wider range of applications and are even used to manufacture production quality parts in relatively small numbers.

Rapid prototyping takes virtual designs from computer aided design (CAD) or other 3D modeling software, transforms them into thin, virtual, horizontal cross-sections and then creates each cross-section in physical space, one after the next until the model is finished. It is a WYSIWYG process where the virtual model and the physical model correspond almost identically.

With additive fabrication, the machine reads in data from a CAD drawing and lays down successive layers of liquid, powder, or sheet material, and in this way builds up the model from a series of cross sections. These layers, which correspond to the virtual cross section from the CAD model, are joined together or fused automatically to create the final shape. The primary advantage to additive fabrication is its ability to create almost any shape or geometric feature.

The standard data interface between CAD software and the machines is the STL file format. An STL file approximates the shape of a part or assembly using triangular facets. Smaller facets produce a higher quality surface.

See also 3D printing

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