The Mechanical Engineering (ME) faculty at Western Kentucky University (WKU) has developed a curricular plan to balance the strengths and weaknesses of three types of design prototyping: rapid, traditional, and virtual. Rapid prototyping refers to any of the modern 3D printing tools, such as Fused Deposition Modeling. Traditional prototyping has been defined as primarily machined parts, ranging from simple fabricated parts to CNC machined components. Virtual prototyping is used to describe designs that exist only in the digital domain as parts and assemblies in a 3D drawing program. Over the entire four years of the WKU ME curriculum, students work on a range of projects that allow them to utilize all three types of prototypes. The ME Freshman Experience allows students to blend the study of design methodologies with basic instruction in machine tools. Each student designs, builds, and tests their own air-powered steam engine. Sophomore Design finds the students working not only on a virtual design project, but also a more extended design-build-test project focused on experimentation. Junior design blends an externally sponsored virtual design along with the ASME Regional Student Competition (RSC). As with the RSC, Capstone Design in the senior year allows students to use a balance of all three types of prototyping as they judge appropriate and/or requested by their external sponsor. Design projects utilizing rapid and traditional prototyping resources require a large commitment by faculty and staff for support. A balance between time, resources, and level of student effort must be maintained, but careful planning can lead to improved student design performance. Virtual prototyping can appear to be easier to manage, but student expertise in creating fidelity between digital drawings and the desired physical parts varies widely. The deficiencies can show up when creating assemblies, but students can often mask the errors. The most important aspect of all these prototyping activities is the need for continual interaction between students, faculty, and staff. Students do not usually possess an innate project management ability, but experience has shown that strong project management skills are necessary for successful prototyping activities. All persons involved in the efforts must understand the prototyping facilities available, the time and resources necessary to utilize them effectively, and the reasonable expectations of the course effort. Students can gain understanding through repeated course exposure, but faculty must present a consistent voice with respect to the technologies available.

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