Benefits Of Rapid Prototyping And Rapid Tooling

Listen to our latest podcast where we discuss the benefits of rapid prototyping and the different rapid tooling technologies you may take advantage of!

You’ll learn:

  • what rapid prototyping is
  • the difference between additive and subtractive manufacturing methods for prototypes
  • what ‘hard tooling’ which is used for mass production is and its features in comparison to rapid tooling
  • the different rapid tooling methods and their pros & cons
  • why a number of rounds of prototypes before going into production is invaluable
  • tips to follow if you’re going to create rapid prototypes to test and validate your new product designs
  • …and more!

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Hit this link to listen to the episode: The Benefits Of Rapid Prototyping (& Rapid Tooling Methods)

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Show summary

✅ What is rapid prototyping? – some companies design their new product and get production tooling made, for plastic injection molding, at the cost of tens of thousands of dollars and later get feedback that there are some issues with the product design or the product includes features that are not popular with users. This leads to further delays and higher costs to adjust the design and change the tooling.

This is a case of trying to run before learning to walk, and rapid prototyping helps you test and validate the design before making the large (and hopefully final) investment into production tooling by creating prototype parts in a simple and fast way to allow you to test them and make sure the design is ready for production.

✅ Performing rounds of prototyping to get to a minimum viable prototype – You can remove the risks of problems (such as the product not working as expected, being too loud, etc) from your new product design by creating a minimum viable prototype that helps you test and validate the design quickly and at a low cost.

For new and complex products which have more risks, you will want to create a ‘proof of concept’ prototype which has the product’s features, doesn’t need to look good, and must function at least in a crude way. Then subsequent rounds of prototypes will be made which refine the design until you have a prototype that looks good and works well.

To do this you’re not going to open your production tooling at a high cost just to make some rounds of prototypes, that doesn’t make sense, because if the design needs to be changed based on your findings then the tooling will also need to be altered.

✅ The difference between additive and subtractive manufacturing approaches for prototypes – the most common rapid prototyping methods are 3D printing (additive manufacturing) and CNC machining (subtractive manufacturing). 3D printing can use a type of polymer (also other materials) and build a part layer by layer, whereas a CNC machine will take a block of material, let’s say metal, and remove material from it until the remaining material is shaped into your part. Both of these methods are fast and affordable, making them good for rapid prototyping (CNC machining can be used for production, too, however).

✅ PP samples and making the distinction between rapid prototyping and rapid tooling – you want to make sure that the ‘approved pp sample’ (golden sample) is as close to a production piece as possible in its use of materials and processes, so in the case of products needing tooling for injection molding, for example, your rapid prototypes will probably not be the final PP sample. This will come after your tooling is made and will be made using that tooling.

What’s the difference between rapid prototyping and tooling?

Rapid prototyping is the creation of custom parts using 3D printing, CNC machining, or some kinds of soft tooling (molds made with a softer material). Rapid tooling is where tooling (for instance, molds for plastic injection molding) is fabricated from silicone rubber or very soft steel (other soft materials like aluminum are used but aren’t common in China) which is faster than production tooling as very hard steel is used and takes longer to shape. Some PP samples can be made from rapid tooling if it’s the same as the final production ‘hard’ tooling.

Read Sofeast’s Guide To Rapid Tooling Prototyping for more details and a handy table that compares the different methods.

✅ Discussing hard tooling and its pros & cons – going straight into hard tooling, as many do, will take longer and be expensive. Around 6 weeks is a reasonable time to expect it to take to fabricate and test the tooling, therefore you are holding yourself up from being able to test your product design by waiting, and if the tooling needs to be adjusted it takes more time to remove some material and this can also affect the mold’s lifespan, too. If your product is ready for mass production, though, the hard tooling is great as it will last for a huge number of ‘shots,’ creates the texture you want (unlike 3D printing and CNC machining), has very tight tolerances which are particularly good for plastic parts, and you can conduct testing on real ‘production’ parts which will be very similar to those that get into consumers’ hands (ultimately if a part needs to be made with plastic injection molding, you will need to make prototypes using a mold, rather than rapid prototyping via 3D printing or CNC machining which are simply not going to provide a production finish).

✅ The benefits of doing iterations of prototypes during pre-production – based on this blog post: Prototesting: Reap All the Value of Proof of Concept Prototypes. ‘Quick and dirty’ prototypes have a place during NPD, but the closer you get to production the less you rely on them. Making fast iterations of physical prototypes with different tweaks and approaches helps a product designer test lots of approaches and refine the concept, so 3D printing and CNC machining to create rapid prototypes adds a lot of value. You will check that the product works, that a user will have a good experience, etc. Better to know these points early, rather than find out after hundreds of thousands of dollars and a lot of time have been spent.

✅ The pros & cons of the different technologies for typically making plastic parts –  Renaud talks through the different technologies that may be used for rapid prototyping:

  • 3D printing: Once the CAD drawing is ready you can get parts made almost immediately and use them straight away, but they don’t have the physical characteristics of a production part. The cost would be prohibitive for a larger number of pieces, and the tolerances and finish are not great (some rework would be needed to add textures etc). Sofeast has our own 3D printer on-site for prototyping.
  • CNC machining: A block of materials is held in place and an arm moves around it with a cutting tool to remove some of the material. It can provide a high level of accuracy and tight tolerances and is quite fast. Unlike 3D printing, you can use the same materials as will be used in mass production, and it can reproduce some textures (although is limited). Some metal products can be mass-produced using CNC machining. Sofeast also has our own CNC machine on-site for prototyping operated by our CNC engineer. Sometimes it’s important to CNC machine a part to prove to a supplier what can be done and push them to produce the parts more quickly.
  • Die casting: A competitor to CNC machining that also uses metal. Less waste than machining, but the final pieces can be quite porous and will need to be anodized before they can be coated etc which is more costly than CNC machining.
  • Silicone tooling: This is an injection mold that is good for perhaps 5-25 shots and can be made very quickly. The prototype parts will be made using a plastic polymer and after they have cooled in the mold they can be removed and tested. Tolerances and accuracy aren’t high, but it gives fast results in just days rather than the weeks or months it takes to create soft and hard tooling. Also, the same plastic can be used as in mass production and the pieces will be more similar to those that will come from the hard production tooling than, say, a 3D printed prototype.
  • Soft tooling: Uses soft steel to make the mold and so will last for fewer shots than hard tooling, but it could be suitable for smaller production runs. The accuracy and finish are very good. This is cheaper and will be a little quicker to make than hard tooling, perhaps a little over a month. Therefore, you should still be quite sure about the product design before you make this and will have gone through some rapid prototyping rounds using 3D printing, silicone tooling, etc, to make a look and use alike prototype first.
  • Altering standard parts: This is a bonus suggestion, as altering standard parts to suit your needs with a little rework such as adding a couple of holes is a workaround that helps you avoid needing to create custom parts from scratch. An example here is the original Tesla Roadster which used a lot of standard parts from a Lotus.

✅ Renaud’s key points to take away if you’re an importer who is looking into doing rapid prototyping  – here are the takeaways that will be helpful:

  • Look at similar products and avoid reinventing the wheel by creating something similar but with added features, this will derisk the product development process on the technical side.
  • Keep the product as simple as possible for a V1.0 in order to get to market as quickly and cheaply as possible, so just focus on the key problems the user needs a solution for by performing market research to validate that it solves them (additional functions etc can be added in a V20 or 3.0 later on).
  • Work with an industrial designer who has good communication and understands your vision (Andy Bartlett is a great example and we spoke with him about tooling for plastic injection molding on the podcast already).
  • Be aware of keeping control over your IP and designs when approaching manufacturers. Vet the suppliers first, get them to sign an NNN agreement and product development contract before you get them to start developing the product otherwise they may claim ownership of your product design and refuse to give you any design files.
  • Take your time in the product development stage to play with the design, refine it, speak to users, research alternatives and ways to simplify it, rather than rushing into fabricating hard tooling, getting certifications, and trying to go to market very quickly. In the latter approach, you risk missing something that would be seen in your prototypes that could turn into a big problem in mass production.


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