Rapid prototyping: Why product design and rapid prototyping go hand-in-hand

Rapid prototyping provides a cost-effective approach, enabling product design and engineering teams to obtain valuable aesthetic and functional feedback early in development.

Image from customer, Iterate UK, showing a consumer product design team at work in their studio. Includes electronics, 3D printing, sketching, and simulation.

What is rapid prototyping?

Rapid prototyping commonly uses 3D printing to quickly create scale models or assemblies based on digital designs, most commonly from 3D CAD files. The ability to quickly develop and refine physical prototypes gives engineers actionable feedback from collaborators in a fast and cost-effective manner. Industrial designers and partners may use rapid prototyping to evaluate aesthetics and ergonomics for user testing, and engineers might provide input on a prototype’s material properties and performance. Other collaborators may validate the rapid prototypes for manufacturability and usability before production.

Fusion customer, Whill, generatively designs electric wheelchairs (PEV's: Personal Electric Vehicles). Whill engineers photographed at the Yokohama Joint Research Center in Yokohama, Japan. Generatively designed part designed in Fusion and 3d-printed prototype is shown.

Product design and rapid prototyping for manufacturing

Rapid prototyping has become indispensable in product design, allowing for swift transformations of digital concepts into tangible models. This quick realization facilitates immediate feedback, helping identify potential design shortcomings and ensuring a smoother transition from ideation to production.

Additive manufacturing, or 3D printing, has revolutionized rapid prototyping by providing a cost-effective and efficient means to produce complex designs. Its ease-of-use approach accelerates prototype creation, enabling designers to iterate faster and respond promptly to design challenges.

CNC machining complements rapid prototyping by delivering precision and specified surface finish, especially for components demanding tight tolerances or specific materials. It offers a blend of speed and accuracy, ensuring that prototypes are functional and refined.

Autodesk Fusion 360 is an integrated solution, merging CAD design with 3D printing and CNC machining capabilities. Its unified tools streamline the entire design-to-production process, making it an optimal choice for those aiming to harness the full potential of rapid prototyping in manufacturing.

Image from customer, Iterate UK, showing a consumer product design team at work in their studio. Includes electronics, 3D printing, sketching, and simulation.

Rapid prototype development

With in-house 3D printers, rapid prototyping can fall into a 24-hour cycle in which designers work on a 3D CAD model during the workday, 3D print the prototype parts overnight, and test and tweak the prototype’s design the next day. This efficient cadence enables engineering teams to integrate actionable feedback from clients and collaborators, moving each iteration closer to the product’s final form.

This feedback cycle helps developers identify and fix design problems before gearing up for production runs. The freedom to test many product iterations also liberates engineers to explore design concepts with low risk.

Rapid prototype development can follow several stages, where the prototype advances in complexity and physical properties. In the early product-development stages, proof-of-concept (PoC) prototypes help validate concepts and show a product’s viability. Looks-like prototypes can demonstrate the ergonomics and user experience of a potential final product without having the final product’s complete functionality. Works-like prototypes may not look just like the final product but possess the same functionality and properties of the final product mechanically, thermally, and electrically. Lastly, engineering prototypes combine looks-like and works-like characteristics into a final preproduction prototype designed for manufacturing (DfM) and minimally viable for lab testing.

Industries using rapid prototyping

A worker milling a full-sized foam prototype of a car chassis using a CNC machine.


The automotive space pioneered rapid prototyping and continues to lean on it heavily for developing parts and vehicle concepts.


Biomedical 3D-printed heart, by Josh Qua Hiansen, of APIL (The Advanced Perioperative Imaging Lab).

Medical devices

Rapid prototyping has been indispensable for producing devices in the medical industry such as surgical instruments, prosthetics, implants, and more. 


Prototype of a lightweight space lander, made in partnership between Autodesk and JPL.


In the demanding aerospace industry, rapid prototyping contributes to creating components, structures, and concept designs for aircraft and spacecraft.


3D printing the machines that make the machines.

Industrial machinery

Rapid prototyping also makes the tools that make the prototypes. When industrial processes need custom tools or one-of-a-kind parts, like injection molds, rapid prototyping (or “rapid tooling”) can help.


Nichinan Group is a design and manufacturing company based in Kanagawa prefecture, Japan. Working in the Nichinan office on 3d printed headphone prototypes.

Types of rapid prototyping

Rapid prototyping is most often associated with additive manufacturing (3D printing) techniques. While other prototyping technologies exist, most are too cost-prohibitive to fall under the rapid prototyping banner. For example, injection molding’s extensive tooling and setup requirements make it impractical and expensive for rapid prototyping.

CNC machining (subtractive manufacturing) can sometimes make sense for rapid prototyping parts that are not a good fit for additive manufacturing. However, CNC machines generally take more to set up, operate, and tool than 3D printers and are used less commonly for rapid prototyping.

As a result, many varieties of additive manufacturing are synonymous with rapid prototyping. The three most common additive technologies are fused filament fabrication (FFF), also known as the trademarked term fused deposition modeling (FDM); stereolithography (SLA); and selective laser sintering (SLS).

FFF/FDM is the most popular form of 3D printing because it is the easiest to operate and the least expensive. It’s also reasonably fast, which makes it suitable for rapid prototyping. However, this technology’s method of depositing melted thermoplastics layer by layer also yields some surface blemishes. It also has the lowest resolution and accuracy of 3D printing technologies, which makes it best for simple parts and early-stage prototypes.

Both SLA and SLS 3D printing are more expensive than FFF but produce stronger, more functional, and more accurate parts than FFF. SLA uses lasers to cure a versatile selection of resins into hard plastic parts with high resolution and tight tolerances. It’s a high-speed way produce looks-like and works-like prototypes. SLS is a popular rapid prototyping approach for making works-like and engineering prototypes for functional and in-field testing. It uses high-powered lasers to sinter together particles of many kinds of powders, including metals. SLS can produce exceptionally strong parts, even with complex geometries and unusual features.

Other 3D printing methods for rapid prototyping include selective laser melting (SLM), laminated object manufacturing (LOM), digital light processing (DLP), and binder jetting. SLM, or powder-bed fusion, is another metal additive method that builds prototype or production parts layer by layer from titanium, aluminum, stainless steel, and other metal powders. DLP technology is similar to SLA but is faster and cheaper, though it may also require support structures during printing and curing afterward. The LOM additive technology adheres layers of machine-cut paper, plastic, or other materials together to fabricate parts. Finally, binder jetting is a fast 3D-printing method that can utilize many different material powders. It binds layers of powder by spraying them with minute liquid droplets, compressing the layers, and finishing the objects with oven curing or sintering.

Benefits of rapid prototyping

Save time and money

Compared to other methods, rapid prototyping with 3D printing saves the time and costs of elaborate machine setup and tooling.


Explore with freedom of concept

Because of the low cost and risk involved with creating rapid prototypes, designers can explore their concepts as physical objects with the look and feel of finished products.


Create with fast, iterative design

With 3D printing’s fast turnaround times, product teams can run more feedback cycles of designing and testing rapid prototypes than traditional methods, without increasing product development time.


Communicate effectively

Physical prototypes can better convey ideas and design intent to clients and team members, who, in turn, gain a better perspective for giving actionable feedback for the next design iteration.

Fix flaws early

Rapid prototyping lets designers and engineers evaluate and test versions that look and operate like final products early in product development, reducing the risk of finding design flaws closer to or during production.


Autodesk solutions for rapid prototyping in manufacturing

Cloud-based 3D CAD / CAM / CAE / PCB software for product design.

Get Inventor + AutoCAD + Autodesk Fusion + more—Professional-grade tools for product development and manufacturing planning.

Customers using rapid prototyping

A young boy with cerebral palsy practices walking using a gait-training robot from Trexo.


Small steps are a giant leap in human kindness

Trexo Robotics employed rapid prototyping in creating its wearable robotic device that helps children with cerebral palsy to walk.


Image courtesy of Trexo Robotics

Display of 3D printed components and parts from manufacturer Misumi.


Artificial intelligence assists custom orders

Japanese machine parts manufacturer’s AI-enhanced “meviy” service offers rapid prototyping and a staggering catalog of parts.


Image courtesy of MISUMI

A backcountry skier carves fresh powder on his WNDR Alpine skis.


Downhill skiing on the up and up

This start-up researched microalgae-based biomaterials and practiced rapid prototyping to develop an alternative to petroleum-based skis.


Image courtesy of WNDR Alpine

Rapid prototyping resources

Learn how rapid prototyping differs from other prototyping methods and how Fusion 360 software helps to execute it.


Discover the different methods of industrial design prototyping and the advantages of rapid prototyping.


Whether you’re an engineer or a hobbyist, 3D printing from home with the help of rapid prototyping software such as Fusion 360 has never been more convenient.


Frequently asked questions (FAQ) on rapid prototyping

What is an example of rapid prototyping?

A good example of rapid prototyping could be a 24-hour design cycle in which designers work on a 3D CAD model during the workday, 3D print the prototype parts overnight, and clean and test the prototype the next day. The designers can tweak the CAD model as needed and repeat the cycle.


During rapid prototype development, a product may go through dozens of iterations of this design cycle.

Is rapid prototyping the same as 3D printing?

Rapid prototyping is not the same as 3D printing, but the different types of 3D printing are recognized as the most practical and popular rapid prototyping methods.


Compared to other types of prototyping, rapid prototyping is the practice of creating multiple prototypes quickly in succession to iterate on a product design. CNC machining and injection molding are used occasionally for rapid prototyping, but those methods are usually too costly and time-consuming to be appropriate for rapid prototyping.


Because additive manufacturing can yield prototypes quickly and cost-effectively, 3D printing has become synonymous with rapid prototyping.

What are the pros and cons of rapid prototyping?

Compared to other prototyping methods, rapid prototyping has the potential for a faster time to market, lower costs, better collaboration between stakeholders, and the innovation and improved quality from testing and refining products early in the development process.


Rapid prototyping faces some limitations with the available fabrication materials, a lack of precision in the prototypes, limited testing if the prototypes aren’t completely functional, and a significant up-front investment if you purchase additive manufacturing equipment to perform in-house rapid prototyping.

What are the main types of rapid prototyping?

The main types of rapid prototyping are 3D printing technologies. The most popular methods include fused filament fabrication (FFF)—or, as it’s also known, fused deposition modeling (FDM)—which is fast and inexpensive but produces parts of lower resolution and strength compared to the other popular methods of stereolithography (SLA) and selective laser sintering (SLS).


Other types of additive manufacturing suitable for rapid prototyping include selective laser melting (SLM), digital light processing (DLP), binder jetting, and laminated object manufacturing (LOM).

What materials can be used in rapid prototyping?

The many types of additive manufacturing that contribute to rapid prototyping can build with a wide variety of materials. Not every type of 3D printing can use all of these materials, but the most common rapid prototyping materials are:

  • Plastics such as ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene), PLA (polylactic acid), nylon, polycarbonate, and so forth
  • Metal powders such as aluminum, titanium, steel, and others
  • Ceramics such as zirconia, alumina, and more
  • Silicone and rubber
  • Composites such as carbon fiber, fiberglass, and Kevlar
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