Let’s say you’ve got a great new idea for a product that you want to bring to market. 

You might be doing this for yourself as a lone inventor, or on behalf of a large multinational corporation. Regardless of your experience, new product introduction can be challenging even for industry veterans. 

We want to make the entire journey easier – from prototyping to production – by offering insights from a manufacturer’s point of view. We’re confident that by learning from our experience, you can save time, money, and headaches on the way to a successful product launch.

 

The Prototype To Production Process Explained

Every product development story is unique, but they do share certain common features. First among them is the need to address your priorities. Assuming that you’re intending to introduce a commercial product for the retail market, here are the questions you need to answer first:

  • What am I trying to achieve with this product?
  • Who is my ideal end user?
  • Is there a demand/need for my innovation? Is there space in the marketplace to support it?
  • How much time and money am I willing to invest to bring this idea to life?

If you have clear and realistic answers to these questions and are ready to make a commitment, then the first order of business is to prepare a complete set of drawings that show every important feature and dimension for all components.

Invest in design drawings

If you’re already an experienced designer and have access to drawing software, great. You can handle this part yourself and take your time to get it right. 

2D drawings, or blueprints, are used to show all dimensions, tolerances, surface finishes, and other quantitative information. 3D drawings can do this as well, while also helping the manufacturer to program their digital manufacturing machines.  

If you don’t have computer design skills, then hire a professional consultancy to do this for you. The design stage is critical and it’s here where potential errors can be found, and corrected, most easily and at the least cost. 

Now, is it possible that a sketch made on a paper napkin can be used to build a crude model? Yes, it can be done, but only for the most simple shapes and not without a lot of trial and error.

Keep it simple

Why do we always advise our clients to embrace simplicity?

Because simple designs are easier and faster to make, cost less, and can take advantage of standard materials that are also less expensive and easier to source. Every added complexity greatly increases cost, production lead time, and the chance for errors or rejected parts. 

And if for some reason the project proves not to be feasible, a simple design represents less financial exposure.

 

Avoid tight tolerances

We also believe that most designs can benefit from having more relaxed dimensional tolerances for all but the most critical features – and there should be few of those. 

For CNC machining, as an example, a tolerance of +/- .05mm, or 50 microns, is readily achieved with decent equipment and tools. This degree of accuracy is more than good enough for the vast majority of consumer and industrial parts and components. 

Is it possible to achieve tolerances tighter than this? Yes, it is. To do so, however, requires much more time and trouble, will be more expensive, and leads to a higher rate of rejects. All without making a part that actually looks or performs better.

 

Create a bill of materials

When you’re making an initial prototype, it’s not necessary to have a complete bill of materials. In fact, it’s hard to create one since, at that stage, the final design may still be undecided.

However, when it’s time to go to production, every single item in the assembly needs to be accounted for. Every nut, bolt and screw, rubber button or metal clip, even the amount of paint or glue – all must be accounted for as a separate cost. More line items mean a more complex supply chain – one reason we recommend keeping designs simple.

You can see that a detailed BOM helps you to assess where every penny is being spent. If you end up making a million parts, then these pennies add up. Better to prepare for this up front.

Choose the right materials

Sometimes a prototype is made from an expensive or exotic material. This is done when making a showpiece, or to help with a marketing or funding campaign. But exotic materials are not a good choice for high volume manufacturing.

Instead, consider substituting more common raw materials. They will be less expensive and easier and faster to procure. Most importantly, manufacturers have more experience working with stock materials so this will make it easier to control process parameters for more consistent results.

 

Choose the right surface finish

A prototype that was carefully sanded, polished, and hand-painted with a custom color no doubt looks great. 

But is that practical on a large scale? Elaborate surface finishes tend to require a lot of attention to detail and careful hand work, something that isn’t always possible for high-volume production.

For the highest efficiency, we recommend using an “as machined” surface finish for non-cosmetic parts. For cosmetic surfaces, they can be painted or plated to achieve excellent results. Anodizing is an attractive and very durable surface treatment for aluminum and titanium, and parts can be processed in batches as needed without committing to any minimum volumes.

4 Tips On How To Build A Great Prototype

Now that you’ve done your design homework, it’s time to move onto the next step, which is making a physical prototype.

1. Find a prototyping specialist

The prototype manufacturing process can differ significantly from mass production. 

This is not just true of the machines or equipment. Making a prototype requires careful attention to detail and a high degree of flexibility in materials and workmanship, which not every factory is able or willing to provide when dealing with very small custom orders. 

Prototype manufacturers are prepared to work closely with their design partners to ensure your design intent is clearly communicated and translated into a physical part. And they understand that making just one part can sometimes take weeks to get it just right.

A question of fidelity

Fidelity refers to how closely the prototype matches the form, fit, and function of an eventual full production part. Prototypes with higher fidelity take longer to make and cost more, but they also provide better data for testing purposes. High-fidelity prototypes give you a better idea of production lead times and cost, so we think they are a wise investment.

2. Choose the right manufacturing process

Prototypes made from metal

A metal prototype is usually made one of three ways. It can be machined, stamped, or 3D printed. 

CNC machining is used to make solid and semi-solid components from a wide variety of metal and some types of rigid plastic or even carbon fiber. CNC machining can be a great way to make a prototype because it’s fast, versatile, easily modified, and the designer doesn’t need to make a commitment for tooling or minimum order quantities.

The great advantage for product developers is that CNC machining makes a finished part that is very high fidelity, essentially a duplicate of a high volume production part. That means the prototype is full-strength and can be used for engineering testing as well as product certification. 

Metal stamping is used to make box enclosures, flat plates, fixtures, brackets, or other thin-walled parts from sheet metal. For prototyping purposes, holes and slots can be laser cut or machined from flat plate. But this approach is not practical for high-volume production, which requires making dedicated cutting dies. 

3D metal printing is capable of making the most complex geometries, and metal printed parts are indeed very strong. 

But there are caveats.

3D printing is a highly-engineered process and it takes a lot of expensive design work to get it right. It’s slow, expensive, and parts need post-machining before they can be used. We only recommend this method if the design simply cannot otherwise be made conventionally. Be warned that 3D metal printing is absolutely not a solution for high volume production.

Prototypes made from plastic

There are three common ways to make a prototype from plastic. They can be CNC machined, polyurethane vacuum cast, or 3D printed.

Solid or semi-solid parts with medium to high complexity should be machined or 3D printed. Machined parts will be stronger and with tighter tolerances, but a bit more expensive. 

There are many different kinds of plastic 3D printing methods providing different levels of fidelity, surface finish, complexity and strength. 3D printing in plastic is cost-effective and fast. Many product developers can take advantage of local printing services in their area, so they can see the physical results of their designs in a matter of days. 

Polyurethane vacuum casting is used to make enclosures that mimic the look and surface quality of true plastic injection molded parts. Silicone molds are formed around a 3D printed master pattern, and these molds can be used for up to 20 copies of the original. The surface quality is excellent, so this method is most often used for showroom-quality prototypes that are cosmetically very close to the ‘real thing.’

3. Moving into production

Unlike prototyping, volume manufacturing puts the emphasis entirely on maximizing production throughput while minimizing costs. But before that can be done, the product developer needs to understand the ways that a prototype differs from a production part.

From CNC Prototyping to CNC Production

Since CNC machined parts are high fidelity, there is little difference between a prototype and a production part. 

The supplier may try to tweak the cutting program for faster throughput, or they may use a variety of jigs and fixtures that allow them to machine multiple parts in a single set-up. The advantage here is that developers can increase volumes with a clear idea about the cost of each piece and the production lead times.

Does it matter if the part is plastic or metal? Yes, sometimes it matters a great deal, and in the next section we will explain why?

4. Plan for certification and testing

Unlike prototypes, production parts for commercial sale need to be certified under a variety of safety and regulatory schemes. 

These will depend on many factors including the environment the product is used in, whether it’s electrically powered or not, and the country where it’s sold.

You should be prepared to send finished products to different organizations for certifications, and calculate the time and expense of this necessary step.

In this video, learn about Star Rapid’s services.

Create Your Manufacturing Strategy With Star Rapid

When you’re ready to launch your prototype as a commercial product, we’re ready with a suite of manufacturing services in-house to help you scale from prototype to production. Contact us today to speak to our engineers, who can offer you a variety of solutions to meet your product goals.

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