The ever-increasing pace of product development has forced companies to adopt an agile strategy that is both rapid and effective. A critically important part of this process is the creation of prototypes. Prototyping, if done correctly, can produce valuable insights in terms of the design viability very early on in the development process. Effective and efficient prototyping can, therefore, offer significant savings in both cost and time, especially when coupled with experienced prototype machining services.
What is a prototype?
Prototyping refers to the process of creating a range of pre-production sample products. They allow one to test the accuracy of engineering simulations, evaluate form, fit, and function, validate manufacturability (DFM & DFMA), and test market response via focus groups. As such, prototyping does not mean creating a single perfect pre-production unit, but rather it is a process that starts with low-fidelity plastic parts and moves all the way through to a final fully-functional prototype. During this process, the design is continuously evaluated and iterated upon. One of the most efficient methods of streamlining this process of iteration and continuous improvement is to outsource the manufacturing to prototype machining services that not only have all the required machinery but also the expertise to help guide these design iterations to the final product.
Types of prototypes
There are many different prototype classifications, but the three listed below are the most common in physical product development.
- Prototype concept models– Prototyping can be used as a tool to further evaluate conceptual designs. If, after the design stage, there are still too many viable concepts, concept prototypes can be manufactured to evaluate their look, feel, and functionality from a high-level perspective without delving into too much detail. CNC machines can help iterate between these early concepts since cheap plastics are easily machined and require minimal investments in time and finances.
- Functional & working prototypes– A working prototype is a fully-functional prototype created to represent all the features of the conceptual design. Whenever possible, it is important that a working prototype be created with the same manufacturing techniques as the final product. This allows engineers to see where possible manufacturing or engineering challenges may require design changes early on in the product development process. These prototypes often contain multiple materials and thus require a wider range of manufacturing equipment to create, and CNC machines can machine many different materials from aluminium to engineering plastics.
- Visual representation prototype– A visual prototype is created to showcase a product’s design intent by depicting its general shape, size, material makeup, and design. CNC machines can not only be used to create the individual components of the prototype but can also be used to create master patterns for parts that can then be cast in urethane to better represent the materials to be used in production. Another example is the machining of optically transparent prototypes using clear acrylic and polycarbonate. Transparent prototypes are sometimes used to showcase the internal workings of a product while still presenting the design of its enclosure and structural components.
Benefits of CNC machining prototypes
Prototypes can be manufactured using a wide range of technologies from 3D printing to injection molding. However, CNC machining is one of the best solutions, as it strikes a good balance between cost, speed, and versatility. Prototype machining services often have a large inventory of CNC machines to enable maximum flexibility. CNC machines offer a range of benefits when used to manufacture prototypes, including:
- Material selection– CNC machines can easily be set up for a wide range of materials from metals like aluminium or titanium to advanced engineering plastics like Ultem. This means that engineers have the flexibility to manufacture prototypes from the same materials that will be used in the final production part. Prototype machining services thus allow for maximum flexibility when it comes to material selection.
- Lower cost – Large and bulky prototypes are often cheaper to manufacture using subtractive technologies as the material and manufacturing cost of other technologies like SLS printing are prohibitively expensive. Further, CNC machining is also economical for short production runs. These short production runs can serve to evaluate how well the design handles scaled production without significant financial risk.
- Fast turnaround – CNC machines can operate 24/7 in between maintenance cycles and as such allow for fast turnaround times. More advanced 5-axis CNC machines cut the time further by limiting the set-up and fixturing of parts during the manufacturing process. 5-axis machines are capable of producing a complete part in only one setup.
- Accuracy– CNC machines are extremely accurate. Tolerances of between 0.05mm to 0.125mm are easily achievable for aluminium parts. In addition to this extreme accuracy, CNC machines are capable of producing parts with high-quality surface finishes, thus limiting post-production processes like polishing and cleaning.
A well-made prototype can ensure a concept gets the green light for production while simultaneously highlighting any useability and manufacturing issues well in advance of mass production. AutoProtoWay.com offers a wide range of prototype machining services that will help you focus on the critical design details of your product.