As prototype technology becomes more advanced, it can often be difficult to decide whether it is best to go right to a production ready supply partner or first work with a prototype-only component provider. This article represents the first in a series where a variety of factors will be examined and their importance to market success highlighted. Future installments will follow soon.
Choosing between a low cost prototype-only source and a full-service commercialization partner can often be a daunting decision for an OEM when outsourcing production prototypes. Design for manufacturability (DFM) expertise, process specialization, quick issue resolution, and high-volume capabilities are a few of the reasons industry and market leaders ultimately select commercialization partners for their production prototypes. These companies understand the many technical and commercial benefits that result from a more extensive knowledge and experience base.
Many major OEMs already have some internal prototype manufacturing capabilities. The first level of prototype, often referred to as proof-of-concept prototype, is used to validate the idea and prove feasibility. Proof-of-concept prototypes generally bear little resemblance to the final product and are often accomplished with stereolithography (SLA), 3D printing, and other rapid-prototyping processes.
The next prototype level, design prototype, is used to finalize design details and get samples into the hands of dealers, distributers, and even users like surgeons and medical practitioners. For plastic injection molded products, design prototypes are frequently manufactured using hand-loaded, single-cavity molds and may not meet material or performance requirements.
The third level of prototype, called production prototype, takes this concept to the next level by using the final production design and manufacturing processes. In addition to validating the product design for fit and function, tooling and processes are also validated during this phase of pre-production. It is at this level that the selection of a full-service commercialization partner contributes real value to the OEM. Unlike the sometimes narrow focus of the prototype-only source that strives to make several high-quality parts, the commercialization partner leverages technical know-how to assume a broader perspective and consider all of the factors that are required to efficiently and reliably produce parts in a high-volume market. The use and application of robust DFM methodologies during this prototype phase cannot be underestimated when evaluating the impact on overall program cost and timing.
Both the OEM and the commercialization partner benefit from early engineering involvement and capturing “lessons learned” during the production prototype phase. As has been shown repeatedly and across various industries and applications, new product launches are significantly more successful when the entire design and production engineering team is involved from the initial concept phase through prototype and all the way to production.
“Many of our product engineers have over 25 years of experience making complex injection molded parts with extremely tight tolerances,” said Tim Holmes, Vice President of Engineering at GW Plastics Inc.. “By sitting alongside our customers as early as possible in a program, we’re able to provide them with design guidance that reduces risks and helps make a long-lasting, high-quality product.”
Since most of the product lifecycle costs are committed during the design and prototype phases, it behooves all parties to select the correct materials and processes prior to large scale production. For injection molded products, the use of mold simulation software and the application of sound scientific molding techniques helps to validate product design concepts well before significant investment in production tooling is made. Moreover, the cost of not applying DFM principles is significant and results in a drawn-out iterative design process that lengthens overall time-to-market.
In addition to ensuring a good product design, a comprehensive DFM process can also help create robust tooling that will last throughout the life of the program. For injection molded parts, early cross-functional review of part drawings and CAD models may reveal mold geometry conditions that could lead to high wear in the production mold. Eliminating undercuts in the part geometry, reducing the number of mold actions, fitting wall sections wherever possible to reduce part weight and lower cycle time, and optimizing gate locations are several recommendations that a knowledgeable, full-service partner might make to extend tool life. In this manner, the commercialization partner helps the OEM to reduce tooling cost as well as the overall production cost.
According to Holmes, “Our company’s roots are in mold-making, and we still build a majority of our molds in-house. Because of our extensive tooling knowledge, we spot issues before they become problems.”
It is clear that proactive application of DFM tools throughout the design process assists both the OEM and the full-service commercialization partner in optimizing all manufacturing processes while assuring the best cost, quality, reliability, and time-to-market. So, how important are process specialization, quick issue resolution, and high-volume capabilities in the overall selection of a production prototype source?