When selecting the best plastic prototype manufacturing partner, the most important decision to make is whether you need a quick, low cost resource or a full-service provider. A few of the reasons why manufacturers are ultimately selected may be due to a thorough understanding of design intent, design for manufacturability (DFM) expertise, face-to-face consultation, quick issue resolution, or high-volume capabilities. Companies that provide production quality parts offer benefits from gained knowledge in experience and technology based on real world testing. Here are 8 questions you should ask yourself, your team and prospective prototype partner prior to deciding on a final process selection.
1. What type of prototyping service do you need?
The type of prototype you would like to acquire should drive your overall decision when selecting the best prototype partner. Proof-of-concept prototypes are used to validate an idea or part feasibility, which don’t need to be an exact replicate of the final part. Oftentimes, this type of prototype can be accomplished through 3D printing and other rapid prototyping technologies.
A design prototype used for marketing purposes in front of customers, distributors and other end users can be obtained through a quick hand-loaded, single cavity mold. This approach can get you parts in a limited amount of time but may not meet the needs for a robust high volume production mold. This would be typically used in a situation where few parts are required in a short amount of time.
Production quality prototypes take your concept to a higher level by replicating the final production design and manufacturing processes. This is the best way to test the design for fit and function while validating the tooling scheme in a pre-production setting. Working with an experienced partner that can provide the engineering resources and technologies needed to produce production prototypes can add real value and cost savings to the manufacturer by getting your part to market quicker.
2. How friendly is the interface?
Every prototype service provider will offer an interface for which the customer can share information and communicate with their team of experts. Some prototype services provide friendlier and easier interface options than others. For example, rapid prototype suppliers often conduct all correspondence via online tools and impersonal communication methods. If your prototype needs are more complex and require more personalized, face-to-face guidance and expertise, be sure to choose a an expert prototype engineer and development team that will provide the step-by-step service and recommendations needed over the phone, via GoToMeeting or in person with your team.
3. Can the developer take your “napkin design” to millions of units of annual production?
This is an important question for manufacturers who develop prototype parts in which the end goal will be high quantity orders of production parts. There are many steps involved between a design sketched on a napkin to the development of a production quality part.
Prototype design tweaks needed throughout the design and development process may require personalized recommendations from expert engineers and prototype developers with extensive experience. Oftentimes, findings and knowledge gained throughout the prototype testing process will play an important role in the final design for high-quantity and quality production.
4. How flexible is the partner?
Tweaks such as materials, radius adjustments, diameters and more, are just a few of the design changes that can occur throughout the development process that add cost and time to a project. Many rapid prototype design services do not factor in the time or added costs needed to make critical changes that will ultimately impact the functionality and end-use of your part. Additionally, their lack of flexibility or inability to provide exactly what is needed to produce the best functioning part, may be a roadblock that manufacturers run in to when taking what initially seems to be a quicker and less costly route.
Be sure to have a good understanding of your prototype partner’s engineering expertise, tolerance to design compromises and possible costs that may accrue as you’re trying to gain knowledge during your prototype testing process.
5. Does the partner know how to run lean and keep costs down while improving efficiencies?
There are many efficiencies in regard to time and cost that can be found when working with an experienced prototype design engineer who keeps your end use goals in mind. Working with a partner that will listen to your needs and has the expertise to make cost-saving recommendations throughout the project process, will not only save you money, but time as well. Design variables such as side actions, rounded corners, sufficient draft in conjunction with your material should all be considerations your prototype engineer expert can evaluate for efficiencies throughout the design process.
6. Are there knowledgeable engineers to help if problems occur?
Regardless of the complexity of a project, one of the biggest challenges a manufacturer may face is access to knowledgeable engineering help. Most rapid prototyping services limit interaction, communication and customer service related needs throughout the process. You may not know it up-front, but often, challenges arise that require a level of expertise and assistance that may not have been anticipated at the start of the project.
Choosing a prototype partner that provides exceptional service from the project on-set, is just another way to obtain greater time and cost savings in the long run.
7. How safe is your intellectual property?
Most often, at the conclusion of a plastic prototype design and testing phase, a manufacturer needs to maintain the intellectual property obtained through the process so that it can be used later on in the production phase. What resources does your prototype partner provide to ensure this knowledge will be easily transitioned from one phase to the other?
Asking this question and having a conversation about your needs in regard to maintaining the intellectual property accrued throughout the design process can be a critical factor down the road in production, or if an event occurs where a design tweak, or mold redevelopment is needed.
8. How wide of range are the services offered?
The services your prototype partner provides can be an important factor at all stages of the design and development process. Rapid prototyping services oftentimes do not provide the breadth of technology or knowledgeable staff that can help you make informed decisions throughout the design and development process. Prototyping partners that offer experienced engineers and a full range of part development technologies can save you from making costly mistakes prior to production.
Doing a bit of research and having a good understanding of the expertise and services provided by your plastic prototype design and development partner can make a significant impact on your project outcome. Proactive use of DFM tools and technologies throughout the process will guarantee successful production and function of a part while ensuring the best cost, quality and time to market.