What is "Rapid Prototyping"?
This is a relatively new technology that's best described as "3D printing." Instead of your inkjet printer printing ink, imagine that it instead printed fine layers of plastic. After a while, the printer would be able to render a complete 3D object that looked exactly like the original design in every respect.
It's entirely possible to print a whole N scale freight car, for instance, in one piece. It takes a while, since the plastic is deposited in very thin layers, but it's a powerful technology. It's called "rapid prototyping" because the technology was developed as a way for manufacturers to study proposed products and look for possible manufacturing flaws before committing themselves to the highly expensive process of cutting steel for injection mold tooling.
It wasn't long before some developers of rapid prototyping realized the technology could be utilized for the manufacturing actual product. However, because it's a time-intensive process, it's really only suited for short runs of small objects, so its not the model-making panacea that some starry-eyed modelers might have you believe.
Another serious shortcoming to RP is resolution, or the fineness of the rendering process. Rough "raster lines" are evident on most surfaces, and there are limits to how thin parts can be made and how small details can be realized. And finally, it takes considerable skill to use the software required to render the 3D drawings—not to mention there are many rules and caveats involved in producing successful designs.
Plus it's still a costly technology; it'll be quite a few years before any of us will have an RP printer sitting next to our inkjet. Meanwhile, model railroad accessory cottage industries have been springing up like weeds because many RP systems are available on a "timesharing" basis, whereby a user submits their 3D design to a rendering firm, which returns the finished products to them for resale. Shapeways is but one example of such services.
Still a new technology, RP yet has a ways to grow, and many of the issues that make it unsuitable for finer model-making applications will likely be resolved over time. And of course cost will continue to fall, eventually reaching a point where it will be affordable for more of us.
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