Aluminum is a popular metal many manufacturers use in making prototypes and production parts because of its excellent mechanical properties. These prototypes are applicable in several industries for testing due to the need for quality and durable parts and aluminum prototyping is commonly used in such industries.
Manufacturers employ various aluminum prototyping methods, each with pros and cons. Since the wrong technique can incur huge losses, this article discussed the common aluminum alloys used in prototyping, different aluminum prototyping processes, and how they can apply to your project.
Common Aluminum Alloys Suitable For Prototyping
Various aluminum alloys are suitable for prototyping, but some are more used than others. Common aluminum alloys used in industries such as automotive, aerospace, and medical part manufacturing include:
1. Aluminum 3003
Considered the most common aluminum alloy used in manufacturing, aluminum 3003 contains aluminum and manganese, which helps boost its strength by 20% without damaging its flexibility. It is not heat-treatable. Nevertheless, it has many applications, such as its use in manufacturing utensils, aluminum storage tanks, etc.
2. Aluminum 5052
This is another non-treatable alloy known for its strength and resistance to water and chemical corrosion. As a result, this makes it applicable to producing marine parts and equipment.
3. Aluminum 6061
This heat-treatable aluminum alloy contains magnesium, silicon, chromium, and copper. Aluminum 6061 has high tensile strength and great corrosion resistance and is applicable in making electronic and automobile parts.
4. Aluminum 7075
Aluminum 7075 is heat treatable like aluminum 6061 and has zinc as its major alloying element alongside other elements such as manganese and copper. It is lightweight and strong. Hence, it is applicable in the aerospace industry in manufacturing gears and fittings for aircraft.
5. Aluminum 6063
Also known as architectural aluminum, Aluminum 6063 comprises silicon, copper, and magnesium. It has moderate strength and being a silicon-magnesium alloy, it can resist corrosion well. As a result, it is applicable in making parts used externally, such as architectural components, pipes, and furniture.
Different Methods for Making Aluminum Prototypes
Various methods can be used to make an aluminum prototype depending on the part function, quantity, and geometry. The most used techniques are:
Method #1: CNC Machining Aluminum
CNC machining is a common aluminum prototyping method that uses computer inputs to accurately control the machining tools and eliminate parts of the aluminum workpiece to achieve the desired aluminum CNC prototype. It comprises several techniques including CNC milling and CNC turning.
The benefits of CNC aluminum machining include:
- High compatibility with many aluminum alloys.
- The parts produced using this method display excellent attributes and a good surface finish.
- It is suitable for making prototypes with complex designs.
- High precision and accuracy.
- Easily change the design between prototypes without altering the lead time.
On the other hand, CNC machining has some limitations, which include:
- It’s not suitable for large-scale production.
- CNC machines are more expensive than manually operated machines, which leads to an increase in the cost of production.
Method #2: Aluminum Die casting
Die casting is another ancient manufacturing method suitable for making aluminum and other metal prototypes. This process works by pouring the liquid aluminum into a mold, which takes the inverse shape of the desired prototype. While effective, die casting is expensive because it requires special tools and is labor-intensive.
The benefits of using die casting to make an aluminum prototype include:
- It provides an excellent surface finish with precise dimensional tolerances.
- Reduced wastage of materials compared to CNC machining.
- Produces a very strong part.
Its limitations include the following:
- This process requires special tooling, which is expensive.
- You need to have the technical knowledge to achieve the required results.
- It consumes a lot of time.
Method #3: Sheet Metal Prototyping
Sheet metal prototyping is like CNC prototyping but more suitable for working with sheets of aluminum materials. It comprises different processes, hence, most manufacturers to it as a set of techniques such as cutting, pressing, deformation, and pinching used in shaping a metal part to the required shape and form.
Benefits of sheet metal prototyping include:
- You can get multiple similar copies of prototypes simultaneously.
- Uses a set of fabrication techniques.
- Highly consistent.
Its limitations include the following:
- It’s an expensive process.
- It doesn’t accommodate complex designs.
- Turnaround time is high.
Method #4: Aluminum Extrusion
This aluminum prototyping process combines the characteristics of both 3D printing and casting. Aluminum extrusion forces aluminum alloys through open molds to create an elongated part and is suitable for manufacturing components like metal bars, joints, and brackets.
Benefits of aluminum extrusion include:
- Lower material use.
- There is lower wastage of materials due to recyclability.
- It produces strong aluminum prototypes that, in terms of their properties, look like those of metal casting.
Limitations of aluminum extrusion include:
- It requires expensive, special tools.
- Only compatible with a limited range of aluminum alloys.
- Mostly suitable for producing elongated parts.
- It is time-consuming.
Method #5: 3D Printing
3D printing is an additive manufacturing process suitable for creating an aluminum prototype when looking for reduced waste, flexibility, suitability for complex design, etc. It comprises several techniques, with DMLS (Direct Metal Laser Sintering) technology being the more common method for creating 3D-printed aluminum parts.
The DMLS process involves using a high-powered laser beam to sinter granules of aluminum alloys in a layer to form the required part. Like the CNC machining method, 3D printing also requires 3D CAD models to make aluminum prototypes precisely. However, it is more suitable for producing parts with difficult geometries.
Below is a list of the benefits of 3D printing:
It can be used to create prototypes with complex designs.
Suitable for manufacturing small batches of projects.
Limitations of 3D printing include:
- Producing aluminum prototypes with 3D printing is more expensive than CNC machining.
- Some physical and chemical properties of the parts produced don’t show.
- It requires extra surface treatments.
How To Choose The Right Aluminum Prototyping Method?
Selecting the most suitable aluminum prototyping method is crucial to avoid material waste or poor results. Some factors must be considered before selecting an aluminum prototyping method. They are:
1. Quality of the Material
The choice of an aluminum prototyping method strongly depends on the type of aluminum alloy to be used. This also plays a huge role in the quality of the prototype. As a result, you should ensure you know about the properties of the aluminum alloy you are dealing with. A way of knowing the right material quality is by research. A faster way would be by talking to aluminum CNC prototype manufacturers to choose the right material.
2. Prototype Quantity
The number of aluminum prototypes needed is also essential in selecting the type of process. Manufacturing methods like CNC machining and 3D printing will be more suitable for producing a small batch of materials. However, die-casting methods are suitable for producing up to 10,000 aluminum prototypes.
Selecting the right aluminum prototyping method also depends on the complexity of the intended and prototype details. 3D printing and CNC machining are suitable for making a complex prototype against methods such as sheet metal prototyping.
Cost plays an important role when choosing the right aluminum prototyping process. It depends on several factors such as material cost, labor cost, and the need for mass production. For mass-produced aluminum prototypes, die casting could be the better method. However, for other processes, you can talk to the prototyping services about getting the right operational cost relating to capital, time, and labor to make the aluminum prototype.
Benefits of Aluminum Prototypes
Based on type, properties, functions, and required strength, various materials are suitable for manufacturing prototypes. However, aluminum is the most common due to its excellent mechanical properties. Below are some of the advantages of picking aluminum prototypes:
1. Excellent Functional Performance
Although the functional performance of the aluminum prototype depends on the aluminum prototyping method, these prototypes are highly functional or mechanical effects. This is due to the high machinability of aluminum. Nevertheless, a functional prototype will require an aluminum alloy with high strength and quality.
2. High Thermal Resistance
Compared to less expensive alternatives like plastics, the aluminum prototype can resist high temperatures well. As a result, the material can be subjected to high temperatures to test for its use in extreme conditions.
3. Nice Aesthetics
Either with CNC machining or 3D printing, aluminum prototypes provide better aesthetics. Even as non-functional prototypes, they still look very attractive.
Unlike plastics, aluminum prototypes are more cost-effective. This is due to the physical characteristics of aluminum, which decrease the rate of part substitution, eventually leading to reduced manufacturing costs.
5. High Accuracy
Aluminum has high machinability. Hence, aluminum prototypes obtained through additive and subtractive processes have tight tolerance. As a result, using them can ensure you have a real part with excellent quality after adequate testing.
Applications of Aluminum Prototypes
Aluminum is a metal with applications in various industrial sectors. The following are some of the areas where aluminum prototypes are commonly used.
1. Medical Field
In this sector, neatness, and biocompatibility are crucial to prevent bacteria and other microorganisms from causing harm. However, aluminum prototypes and parts are up to producing clean and biocompatible medical instruments. Also, it is suitable for producing real parts such as orthopedic and surgical tools and general-purpose facilities such as trays and containers.
2. Aircraft Industry
Aluminum fits this description of lightweight with great strength perfectly. As a result, it makes it a suitable material in the aerospace field, especially in testing real parts. Its high corrosion resistance protects the aircraft from severe damage when exposed to extreme environmental conditions.
3. Automobile Industry
Aluminum car parts such as engine radiators, engine cylinder blocks, wheels, and transmission bodies should be durable, lightweight, and compatible with their environment. As a result, aluminum is a material that automotive parts manufacturers use to accomplish these goals. Also, aluminum is suitable for making recyclable real car parts which helps improve the sustainability of vehicle parts using aluminum prototypes.
How Wayken Can Help You with Aluminum Prototyping?
Aluminum prototyping is making a prototype of parts and components in several industries, especially automotive prototyping. There are several processes to make an aluminum prototype, and choosing the right one most often requires a field professional’s services.
WayKen is an experienced aluminum prototyping manufacturer with vast aluminum and prototyping knowledge. We have a team of experts that can help you bring your ideas from an initial stage to production quickly. Just upload your CAD files and let’s start a new project!
The aluminum prototype is very important in manufacturing processes because it helps test parts to measure how the real part would function by giving a visual exhibition of what the final product will look like and its functionalities. This article talks about the different aluminum prototyping methods and how to select the right method for creating an aluminum prototype.
What’s the cost of producing aluminum prototypes?
The total cost of aluminum prototyping depends on various factors, like the type of aluminum alloy used, the volume of prototypes to be manufactured, etc.
Which aluminum alloy is best suited for prototyping?
Aluminum 6061 is the most widely used alloy for prototyping. Apart from being easy to work with during machining, it also exhibits good mechanical properties such as high strength, good corrosion resistance, and excellent weldability.