Despite significant advances in prototyping techniques, laborious testing cycles and rigorous evaluations are often still needed before a new product can be brought to market. Rapid injection moulding can help to minimise delays by dramatically reducing time spent on this development phase.
Fast-moving competitive markets mean that new products often require frequent design changes. In addition, short lead-times and evertighter product development budgets mean that prototyping must be faster, better and less expensive than ever before.
Many companies are already using rapid injection moulding in place of other processes, producing accurate and durable prototypes at a fraction of previous costs. Those that are doing so are enjoying firstmover advantages in a wide range of industries.
When Clement Clarke Communications (C3), an established designer and manufacturing of telecommunications headsets, recently made its first foray into the high-volume consumer sector, it established a new operation, called Qstik Plc, to design, manufacture and market its products.
Shortly afterwards, the company contacted Ian Deacon, Managing Director of Real World Concepts who specialises in helping companies with specialist manufacturing projects. C3 asked Deacon to help with a project to develop and recommend a manufacturing solution for the Qstik Bluetooth mobile telephone headset.
“My brief was to work with the company to progress from the initial design stage to full production in the shortest time possible,” says Deacon. “Time-to-market is of the essence in the consumer communications arena and there was no time to waste.”
One of his first jobs was to source a precision manufacturer that could produce the tooling required to assemble and test the prototypes. Deacon recommended Protolabs and was struck with how quickly the company claimed it could produce the tooling and the part moulds.
“Initially I was looking for a moulding company that could turn prototype moulds around quickly – typically four weeks,” he says. “Protolabs could make a mould and produce a short run of parts in a production intent resin in as little as five days. This is exactly what we needed to get the Qstik headset project into the prototype phase.”
Rapid injection moulding offers companies the ability to make fully functioning prototypes with high-quality materials. Designers can create inexpensive first-run parts suitable for testing and product evaluation. The process also gives manufacturers the flexibility to create parts that can be used for marketing studies or for low-volume production needs.
Whilst conventional injection moulding technology can take anything up to 4 or even 6 weeks from receipt of a 3D CAD model to shipment of parts, Telford, UK, based Protolabs has been routinely achieving the same result in as little as 5 days since it began its European operations just a few short months ago.
The original QstikG5 headset was made up of eight different components, excluding the electronics. Deacon submitted a 3D model of one of the parts to Protolabs. Within an hour he had received a quote and detailed feedback on how the design could be improved for manufacture.
“All the information was contained in what the company refers to as a ProtoQuote,” explains Deacon. “This was an entirely new and very fast way of moving to the prototype phase. Almost as soon as you press return, Protolabs starts cutting metal. I was very impressed.”
Protolabs gives customers a choice of delivery times, with the fastest being as little as three days from the time the part is submitted. The price of the service varies accordingly.
“Just one week after submitting the designs we had finished parts in our hands. It was fantastic! We had 25 of each part in the production intent resin,” says Deacon.
C3 used the parts to build three fully-functioning prototype headsets for testing and evaluation, during which modifications were made to the original design. When testing was complete, Protolabs redesigned and remachined the tooling and set about moulding a batch of the revised parts – this time to make 100 units.
Rapid injection moulding can deliver from 25 to 10,000 precision moulded prototypes. The CNC machined aluminium mould produces the same geometry as subsequent steel production tooling, so designers can easily replicate the intended shape and functionality of the finished product.
“Silicon moulds are less expensive, but not as hardwearing. If we’d wanted to, we could have used the Protolabs tooling to make thousands or even tens of thousands of parts before we would have needed to replace them,” he concludes. “Protolabs produced eight tools in one week, for a set price. I don’t think we could have done that anywhere else.”