Object Lesson: Rapid Prototyping Machines
Published: May 7, 2012
By Joseph Wakelee-Lynch
Rafiqul Noorani, professor of mechanical engineering, has a machine in his laboratory that can combine water, resins and polymers, and, with the help of a design, create a model of an object with almost any shape.
Noorani teaches computer-aided manufacturing in the Frank R. Seaver College of Science and Engineering. His rapid prototyping machines (he actually has two), do just what the name suggests: quickly make prototypes of objects that can be tested and evaluated prior to the production of final prototypes in a manufacturing process.
The technology was launched in the United States in 1989 by 3D Systems, a research facility based in Valencia, Calif. Because design and testing traditionally required long periods of time to make and test expensive prototypes, mistakes or inaccurate designs could be costly. Rapid prototyping is done quickly, in hours, and with cheaper materials. Mistakes are less costly, and the testing phase and the product development window is shorter — and that saves money.
Noorani introduces rapid prototyping to his students in their freshman and sophomore years.
“Our goal is to teach the principles and applications of rapid prototyping,” he says. “Most students come to mechanical engineering to design something. What is the ultimate purpose of design? To make something. If the design is not made, what good is that design? This rapid prototyping lab really helps them to see their design become reality.”
Noorani can make prototypes of planes, boats and machine tools. His office is sprinkled with several amusing objects: a bust of Homer Simpson, a bust of a former dean (above) who encouraged his work, a lion, a statue of German scientist Otto von Guericke, and a bust of Noorani himself.
Those are only hints at the technology’s possibilities. Noorani says its use in the medical field is astounding. “Doctors can take an MRI of a broken bone,” he explains, “and with that information, I can make a prototype of the bone for use in preoperative surgery. In cases of twins conjoined at the head, surgeons can study for hours a rapid prototype of the area to be separated in surgery.”
From materials like water and resin come complex and extremely useful objects of almost any kind. It almost seems like magic.