EE Times Europe - What’s the Best Process for Prototype Manufacturing?

2022-06-17 07:00:29 By : Mr. Eric Cheung

A prototype-to-production process is a great way for businesses or inventors to run real-world tests on new designs before committing to large-scale manufacturing. However, deciding how to stage the prototype manufacturing process can be challenging.

Companies will have to decide on material, manufacturing technique, and fidelity, even for simple prototypes. Familiarity with manufacturing options and best practices will help a business ensure a smooth process.

One of the most important choices you’ll have to make during prototyping is your manufacturing technique. Most businesses will use either CNC machining or 3D printing to create prototypes.

Additive and subtractive manufacturing have their advantages and disadvantages, so familiarity with these techniques will be essential for effective prototype creation.

3D printing is one of the most popular additive manufacturing techniques. It allows manufacturers to create 3D objects from a digital file by using a machine to carefully layer material into the desired shape.

The technique is additive in that it does not begin with a block or sheet of material that will be cut, shaped, or otherwise reduced. Instead, it’s added until the part is complete.

3D printing can manufacture complete prototypes and individual parts that can be assembled.

Common materials for 3D printing are primarily plastics — including thermoplastics and resins. 3D printing with metal has also become much more common and accessible in the past few years, though specialized printers may be necessary. It’s also possible to print with wood and fabric.

Advantages of 3D printing include freedom of shape, range of available materials, and the speed and low cost of manufacturing.

Most 3D printers also have a reputation for being highly user-friendly and requiring little training. As a result, it’s not unusual for businesses to adopt in-house printers for rapid prototyping or experimental manufacturing purposes.

However, unlike other manufacturing techniques, 3D printing does not typically become faster at scale. Printing many of the same designs at a time won’t secure significant cost or time savings — although you may never need to manufacture more than a handful of parts for a prototype at a time.

While novel, the 3D printing space is growing fast. In Europe alone, the market was valued at US$4.61 billion in 2020. It’s estimated to grow at a 14% CAGR over the next five years.

CNC machining is a subtractive manufacturing technique. It begins with a block of material that will be cut, shaped, and milled into a final product or component.

The CNC machining process for a prototype may involve various equipment, including lathes, turning mills, and grinders. A single part may require multiple machines to manufacture. Operating and configuring this CNC machinery effectively involves training, experience, and safety equipment.

As a result, CNC machining generally becomes quicker with the more parts you need to manufacture. The shop will need to spend less time configuring and retooling its machines in relation to the time spent creating a single piece.

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 highly effective for prototyping, though the specific needs of a business may make one technique more valuable than the other.

Additive manufacturing is generally less wasteful than subtractive manufacturing. 3D printing may be a better option if sustainability 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, like metal, may require specialized 3D printers. 3D printing prototype manufacturers increasingly offer metal printing, but not every company has this capability.

You’ll also need to ensure that your business’s 3D printer can use your desired prototype material if you plan to manufacture in-house.

CNC machining may be able to produce larger items than a 3D printer. The size of the manufactured object will be limited to the size of the print bed.

In general, 3D printing is faster than CNC machining for small-volume manufacturing. It will probably provide better results if you want the most rapid prototyping possible.

Your choice of manufacturing method is one of the most important considerations, but it isn’t the only factor you should consider when selecting a manufacturer. Shipping, processing, and handling will also be important. You may need to begin the process over if a prototype or parts are damaged while in transit to your business, wasting valuable time and resources.

Ensure that your manufacturer knows how to package and ship delicate prototypes safely. The right material can have a major impact on the risk of shipping damage. Properly sizing boxes and filler materials can protect items from rolling or shifting during transit. It’s best to avoid loose materials like peanuts because it may not keep an item secure and can generate static electricity when jostled during transit.

Two prototype manufacturers may have wildly different approaches to prototyping, even if they use the same technique. As a result, it’s important to learn what you can from every experience. Working with a new manufacturer is an opportunity to collect information on the process you can use to optimize things in the future.

For example, you can collect information on lead times and cost data for each manufacturer you work with and each prototype you create. This information can help you predict the cost of a future project or how long a prototype manufacturing process will likely take.

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.

Businesses have more options than ever when it comes to the prototype manufacturing process — but not everyone will be right for every project.

CNC machining and 3D printing can be effective for prototype manufacturing, though 3D printing is often a better option for small volumes when material choice isn’t important.

Businesses should also gather information during the prototype manufacturing process that they can use to make more informed decisions in the future. Data on cost, lead time, and packaging can all be valuable.

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Emily Newton is a contributing writer for EE Times Europe, industrial journalist and editor-in-chief of Revolutionized.

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