A prototype-to-production process is a great way for companies or inventors to perform real-world testing on new designs before committing to full-scale manufacturing. However, deciding how to organize the prototype manufacturing process can be difficult.
Companies will have to decide on the material, the manufacturing technique and the fidelity, even for simple prototypes. Knowledge of manufacturing options and best practices will help a company ensure a smooth process.
One of the most important choices you will have to make when prototyping is your manufacturing technique. Most companies will use CNC machining or 3D printing to create prototypes.
Additive and subtractive manufacturing has its advantages and disadvantages, so knowledge of these techniques will be essential for effective prototyping.
3D printing is one of the most popular additive manufacturing techniques. It allows makers to create 3D objects from a digital file by using a machine to carefully layer the material into the desired shape.
The technique is additive in that it does not start with a block or sheet of material that will be cut, shaped or otherwise reduced. Instead, it is added until the piece is complete.
3D printing can make complete prototypes and individual parts that can be put together.
Common materials for 3D printing are mostly plastics, including thermoplastics and resins. 3D printing with metal has also become much more common and accessible in recent years, although specialized printers may be required. It is also possible to print with wood and fabric.
The advantages of 3D printing include the freedom of form, the range of materials available, and the speed and low cost of manufacturing.
Most 3D printers also have a reputation for being very user-friendly and requiring little training. Therefore, it is not uncommon for companies to adopt in-house printers for rapid prototyping or experimental manufacturing purposes.
However, unlike other manufacturing techniques, 3D printing generally does not get faster at scale. Printing many of the same designs at once will not guarantee significant savings in time or money, although you may never need to manufacture more than a handful of parts for one. prototype at a time.
Although new, the 3D printing space is growing rapidly. In Europe alone, the market was valued at US$4.61 billion in 2020. It is expected to grow at a CAGR of 14% over the next five years.
CNC machining is a subtractive manufacturing technique. It starts with a block of material that will be cut, shaped and ground into a final product or component.
The CNC machining process of a prototype may involve a variety of equipment including lathes, lathes, and grinders. A single part may require several machines to be manufactured. Using and setting up these CNC machines effectively involves training, experience, and safety equipment.
As a result, CNC machining generally becomes faster with the more parts you need to manufacture. The shop will need to spend less time setting up and retooling their machines compared to the time spent creating a single part.
CNC machines can work with a wide range of materials, including metal, wood, thermoplastics, acrylic, and wax.
CNC machining is a subtractive manufacturing process, so it typically generates more waste than additive processes.
CNC machining and 3D printing can be very effective for prototyping, although specific business needs can make one technique more valuable than another.
Additive manufacturing is generally less expensive than subtractive manufacturing. 3D printing may be a better option if durability or material cost is a key consideration for your business.
However, you may have access to fewer materials than are available with CNC machining. Many common prototype substances, such as metal, may require specialized 3D printers. Manufacturers of 3D printing prototypes are increasingly offering metal printing, but not all companies have this capability.
You’ll also need to make sure your company’s 3D printer can use the desired prototype hardware if you plan to manufacture in-house.
CNC machining may be able to produce larger items than a 3D printer. The size of the crafted object will be limited to the size of the print bed.
In general, 3D printing is faster than CNC machining for low-volume manufacturing. This will likely provide better results if you want the fastest prototyping possible.
Your choice of manufacturing method is one of the most important considerations, but it’s not the only factor to consider when selecting a manufacturer. Shipping, processing and handling will also be important. You may have to start the process over if a prototype or parts are damaged in transit to your business, wasting valuable time and resources.
Make sure your manufacturer knows how to pack and ship delicate prototypes safely. The right material can have a major impact on the risk of shipping damage. Proper sizing of boxes and fillers can prevent items from rolling or shifting during transit. It is best to avoid loose materials like peanuts as they may not hold an item securely and can generate static electricity when jostled in transit.
Two prototype makers can have very different approaches to prototyping, even though they use the same technique. Therefore, it is important to learn what you can from each experience. Working with a new manufacturer is an opportunity to gather information about the process that you can use to optimize things in the future.
For example, you can collect time and cost information for every manufacturer you work with and every prototype you create. This information can help you predict the cost of a future project or the likely duration of a prototype manufacturing process.
Keeping track of your real-world experience with CNC machining and 3D printing will also help you determine which manufacturing method will be right for future prototypes.
Companies have more options than ever when it comes to the prototyping process, but not everyone will have the solution for every project.
CNC machining and 3D printing can be effective for prototyping, although 3D printing is often a better option for small volumes when material choice is not important.
Companies also need to gather information during the prototype manufacturing process that they can use to make more informed decisions in the future. Cost, lead time and packaging data can all be valuable.