CNC Prototype: A Marvel in Automotive from Concept to Production

At a glance, it may seem as though the automotive prototype is only a step in a long procedure of production. However, it plays a number of vital roles throughout the process of approval and validation which then allows the culmination of manufacture. CNC prototyping is a marvel in the automotive industry providing it with the cutting-edge market factor, competitive rise, and making it user friendly.

It is a concept to production phenomenon often looked over as one of the many phases. However, without CNC prototyping, the engineers would neither get the design clarity they need nor would they be able to sell their concept to stakeholders or investors.

automotive prototype

Challenges to the automotive industry with regard to competition

Amidst wrenching global economies, technological advancements, and strategic dynamics, planning in the automotive industry has been increasingly challenging. Overcoming imponderable challenges has become conventional to take a sustainable lead in the market. Some of these challenges include but are not limited to:

  • Opportunity, risk and rising market players
    • China is seen as a rising superpower. It is the hub of most advancements and trade. It is a one-way winning ticket for automotive giants.
    • However, the capacity for disruption and the complex idiosyncratic nature of China’s automotive industry shows the shift in demand that is about to prevail with all sorts of environmental factors and energy bounds in the frame.
  • Autonomy, connected cars, and futurists
    • The modern-day surge of the service industry has brought about an era of connected cars in which automobile manufacturers focus on the provision of a comprehensive automotive experience.
    • The current imperative for strategic planners in the automotive industry is to develop strategies that offer connectedness to help buyers whilst maintaining high-profit margins for the industry.
  • Innovation and finding growth
    • Due to the increase in market players, competition is rife. With such shifting demographics, automakers have started focusing on retention strategies. This is because previous strategies relying on engaging new entrants are not in lieu of the present trends of the millennials who want to drive and own cars lesser and lesser by the day.

To account for these innumerable challenges in this industry, various types of prototyping come into play. One of them is CNC prototyping. We will discuss this step by step in the following sections.

A brief outline of CNC prototyping and its advantages

The acronym CNC stands for Computer Numerical Control. CNC machining can be defined as the subtractive manufacturing process which employs computerized tools and machine controls to shape and mold instruments. It accomplishes this by removing layers of material from a generic blank workpiece. CNC prototyping works using G-codes and M-codes. It can perform various operations like cutting, drilling, and boring.

The workflow in CNC prototyping moves from the definition of dimensions in a CAD (Computer-Aided Design) software to manufacturing commands using a CAM (Computer-Aided Manufacturing) software. The CAM software plays the pivotal role of issuing commands in the form of G-codes and M-codes for production.

CNC machining is adaptable with a diverse range of materials including but not limited to woods, plastics, and metals. The CNC machine is the autonomous programmable machine used to construct what is known as prototypes. The precision it provides proves to be vital for automotive prototyping.

Benefits of custom CNC machining includes:

  1. The production of precise and accurately made products that would not be otherwise possible manually.
  2. The automated nature of these highly precise and accurate parts makes for cost-effectiveness, especially when fulfilling one-off production runs.
  3. Helps in the resolution of conflicts between engineers and filing a patent on the basis of “first to invent rule” becomes way easier using prototypes.
  4. Comprehensively understand both the foreseen and unforeseen challenges in a product’s design.
  5. Multi-axis linkage e.g. 5 axis CNC machines are able to produce complex parts.

Automotive prototypes as a concept

concept draft of automotive

In the initial stages, CNC automotive prototypes are essentially used to understand the concept; for familiarization with the project lifecycle and working. The prototype is tested in a controlled environment and the effects gauged for effectiveness. The data collected by the team is sent for further approval of financial support for the final project.

Once the sample is approved and work begins for the final project, a number of anticipated problems and some imponderable resistance is observed. The solutions to these challenges are often generated through effective yet efficient alternatives. The main goal is optimization!

Further rough prototypes are made to convince teams and boards of innovative designs that the market has not seen before. Once the project concludes, it is easy to understand that prototypes, as a concept, not only largely influence product manufacturing but also the communication that takes place between the manufacturers internally and with the stakeholders and investors externally.

A case study that helps understand this better is the manufacturing of inflatable seatbelts. It was a product the market had never experienced earlier. The consumer-user interface only added to the arduous nature of this challenge. It was important to understand the context of the product usage and for the product to be successful not only in production but also in its contextual usage. A huge resistance in the manufacturing of this product was the design of the buckle. It was designed in an unprecedented way. The hurdle was overcome by 3D printing a buckle in plastic using stereolithography (SLA) technology. This rough prototype was enough to convince the team and work on functional prototypes finally began.

Various roles played by prototypes

Under severe competition, manufacturers are encouraged into putting forth their best and introducing unique features for potential customers to set them apart from the crowd. Thus, solutions have started pouring in from outside of the industry more appropriately known as outsourcing.

Without a prototype, the chances of highly inefficient, unsafe, and dangerous parts being sent to production will drastically increase. Thus, the entire product cycle could be at stake and a representation of unrealistic costs causing wastage of resources and in some cases cancellation of the product.

Prototyping is also essential where consumer research is also concerned. Prototype samples and products can be presented to consumers to determine that only the finest and most highly demanded product is distributed in the market.

CNC prototypes: a marvel of the automotive industry

CNC prototype

Prototypes in the automotive industry have allowed for marvelous improvements in user experiences. One such advancement is the human-robot interaction translated in cars in the form of a gestural interface. This allows for a more user-friendly experience than the electrical vehicles formerly supported. This interface came through consistent improvement of technology and tracking algorithms for the implementation and application of the interface. As Prof. Dr. Andreas Riener stated:

“While defining gestures for video games is often straightforward […] this is not the case for computer controls, including those in the car.”

An example of this complex phenomenon is a system that recognizes micro-gestures performed by one finger whilst keeping the hands on the steering wheel. These commands potentially control the infotainment system, and this has been one of the greatest CNC prototypical advancements.

CNC prototyping is being incorporated by automotive manufacturers in the design cycle of various parts like windscreens, door panels, body sheets, engine parts, lighting systems, and much more. Let us outline some of the major parts where CNC plays a pivotal role:

  • Engine: In the internal combustion engine of a vehicle, a large aluminum block can be machined using CNC into an engine block. Moreover, cylinder heads are also produced by CNC machining.
  • Lighting: The machining of materials like acrylic glass, technically known as Poly (methyl methacrylate) (PMMA) is of vitality for the lighting industry related to cars. It can be used to machine various prototypes of interior and exterior lightings and CNC provides cutting-edge technology for remarkable finishes.
  • Carburetor housing, suspension components, wheel axles are further examples of key components where CNC machining plays a major role.

CNC prototyping is seeing even greater heights with the marvelous introduction of Artificial Intelligence. It aids in the reduction of machine downtime; an issue that the automotive industry faces regularly. What it basically does is automated detection of faults along with automated quality control checking.

It is due to AI that CNC machining has now advanced towards mold designing, laser machining, design of electrical components, and even radar sensors on autonomous vehicles (AV). Such parts require extreme levels of surface finishing as the success of AV depends on the precision and accuracy of key components.

Honda’s latest E prototype is an example of the marvels of prototypes. With its pop-out handles, compact wing mirrors (that at a closer glance one can tell are cameras), and the hatchback all point to the fact that it has been designed for urbanites who want a smooth joyful ride.

Its 35.5 kWh Lithium-ion battery, which drives a pitiful 200KM on a single charge, is a prototype under testing. The car is aimed at urbanites who do not have to drive more than 200KM in a day. Even though the car has not been available to the masses, it is the example of a successful prototype coming to life.

Thus, CNC technology proves to be the game-changer for the creation of an automotive prototype and for the automotive industry in general.

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