At first, it may look like an impossible challenge. How do you create a high-quality product in a short space of time for the least amount of money? Two of the three, sure – but finding a balance between the trinity is no easy task. Though it may not appear so at first glance, the solution is rapid prototyping.
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What is rapid prototyping?
For those who aren't familiar with the term, rapid prototyping is the creation of a scale model using techniques such as 3D printing, casting, and CNC. As the last two fall nicely into the ACTech wheelhouse, it's those we'll focus on in this blog.
Prototyping begins with a CAD file and ends with a fully functional part. Having a working piece allows for testing, refinement, and follow-up iterations that ultimately result in a better final product. As the process involves creating a mold, parts can even be produced in small batches or replicated whenever necessary.
The perks of rapid prototyping
The all-important question – why should you do it? We already touched briefly on some of the key benefits of creating a prototype, so let's dive a little deeper.
1. It's rapid
It's in the name for a reason, of course. If you want to build a prototype in a short space of time, this is the way to go. A quicker turnaround may cost you more initially, but you'll reap the rewards later in the process.
2. Test, test, test
Think of it a little like an insurance policy. Before you invest in a complete batch, it's important to make sure your design works. Because your part will be fully functional and designed to the same specifications as a final product, you'll be able to see how it works – and just as importantly, doesn't work – in a real-life situation. This allows you to refine your design, plug any gaps, and produce a better final product.
3. Invest now, save later
The best ability is reliability, and that's what you'll get when you include rapid prototyping in your workflow. The initial investment may seem costly, but getting it right the first time means you'll save time, money, and materials in the long run.
4. Develop complex pieces
If you're looking at creating a prototype, chances are you're trying to do something that hasn't been done before, or you want to fine-tune a complex piece of equipment. This doesn't come easily, of course. Trialing these pieces is a crucial part of the development process and will provide data that would never be available otherwise. The more complex your product is, the more essential prototyping becomes, particularly when you're looking to gain an edge over your competition – the finest margins can make a big difference.
5. A finished look and feel
When you're creating a prototype through casting or 3D printing, you won't just have a piece that works like the finished product – it'll look and feel very close to it too. This can help you make a final decision on the materials you'd like to use.
Working with metal – Why choose prototype casting?
There are two main techniques for creating a metal prototype: metal 3D printing and casting. Each has its merits and will typically be better suited to different projects. Traditionally, the former is preferred for lightweight, one-off pieces, while casting is preferred for batch production. This is partly due to economies of scale rather than any technical preference – the more items you cast, the cheaper each one will be, which can't be said for those you create through 3D printing.
Ultimately, however, your decision should be made by answering a simple question – what technology will you use to mass-produce the finished product? If that answer is casting, then you should also use casting to create your prototype.
A history of quality
Casting has been an incredibly popular choice for metalworking for hundreds of years and, thanks to modernization, is constantly improving. It has allowed for continuous innovation in fields such as the automotive industry, where it is used to create engine parts like the cylinder head, block, and turbocharger. While the pieces themselves may look simple, they often come with a complex challenge – how do you make each iteration lighter?
The answer is simple – reduce the amount of material you use. However, that's easier said than done. In a small piece such as the cylinder head, doing so means making the walls thinner without compromising on strength. Working with a high-quality foundry makes it possible to meet this challenge and others like it.
Size is no issue
One of the main barriers to prototyping has always been scale – size and weight. While foundries have long mass-produced large, heavy pieces, few had the capacity or willingness to do the same for rapid prototyping.
Thankfully, times are changing. If you were to work with ACTech, for example, the scale of your design wouldn't hold you back. Whether it's a small individual piece for the automotive industry or a large, heavy, fully functional part for a ship engine, we'd be happy to cast you a prototype.
An all-in-one approach
As we mentioned earlier, casting isn't the only method for rapid prototyping – and it isn't used in isolation. 3D printing and CNC play an important role in the production of every prototype as well. Molds are usually made using 3D printing techniques, while CNC is necessary when working in incredibly tight spaces.
While not all foundries are set up to cover each of these methods, ACTech's 'all in' mentality means we offer high-quality casting and CNC where required, all in the same workflow, saving you time in the process.
Summing it up
So, is prototype casting right for you? Maybe, maybe not – that really depends on your project – but what we can guarantee is that rapid prototyping definitely is. While the early investment may feel steep, its long-term benefits will far outweigh those early costs and help your project come to life in the best possible way. We can't recommend it enough.
Would you like to learn more about prototype casting or ask for more information about starting a project with ACTech? We'd love to have a conversation.