An RPC(Rapid Prototyping Center) can be an incredibly useful tool in prototyping and building anything. However, most people don't have access to an RPC, Hacker space, nor maker space. This is to help you build your own. To begin prototyping you will need to choose one of three basic
machines, a CNC mill, a laser cutter, or a 3D printer. Likely you will acquire more than one of these machines it the future.
Summary of CNC:A CNC mill is a subtractive process that runs what is basically a high speed of drill bit over wood, aluminum, and some plastics. This can layer and cut material, but with current low cost CNC machines you cannot have overhangs.
Pros of CNC
Faster than 3D printing
Large variety useable materials
Really good at making functional items
Cons of CNC
Most expensive option to buy
Limited on what it can output, only 3 Axis CNC's are available for this price, and cannot produce any over hangs.
Not as neat results as laser cutter
Produces a lot of dust
Cost/Where to buy/Personal experience: The CNC shown in the Picture is pretty much the lowest cost CNC out there, the machine itself will run you about $500 on Ebay, plus $150 for a copy of Mach3, for a total of $650. It is really great of making functional items in a variety of materials. This is only machine on this list that I do not own.
Pros of Laser Cutter
Makes things that can be really pretty
Can create pictures
Makes functional items, but less so than CNC
Wide Variety of Materials
Very accurate, clean cuts
Cons of Laser Cutter
Hard to design for
Only can cut on 2D plane
Cost/Where to buy/Personal experience: The Laser Cutter/Engraver in the picture will run you about $420 at the moment of writing this, but it continues to drop. It is really cheap considering what it is, and it includes Moshidraw software. I Have only had this for about a month and no major problems except when it arrived the bed was bent, as well as a chipped laser shield side. They sent me the replacement items and gave a $30 refund fairly quickly. It works really well for engraving, but cutting is a pain because of the awful software. If using an .SVG output which is a standard, you have to convert it to a JPG, import it into the software, then trace over in the software. However, engraving is a painless process. I bought mine from here .
Summary of 3D printer: Current low cost 3D printers are basically precise hot glue guns, that squirt out layer upon layer of plastic until an object is built. They are usually very slow, finicky, but can create nearly anything(With the use of support material). It is truly the jack of all trades.
Pros of 3D printer
Easy to design for(Tinkercad is recommended)
Little fumes of dust
Large item database(Thingiverse)
Can make almost anything
Cons of 3D printer
Very limited materials
Small build volume
Cost/Where to buy/Personal experience:I have owned two 3D printers in the last year or so. A Printrbot Simple, which is one of the lowest cost alternatives and a Prusa I2. These are both decent, and great first rapid prototyping tools. The one in the picture I have not had any personal experiences with, but I have heard great things about it. The Solidoodle 4 is still far slower than any other of the rapid prototyping tools, but a decent first one. It will run you about $600, but you can get other 3D printers for about $400, but be prepared to put more time tinkering with them.
Picking a machine is really a personal preference, that depends on what projects you plan on working on, but in brief, 3D printing is the jack of all trades, laser cutting is fast, and CNC is good for making functional pieces.