How Prototype Tooling Can Be a Smarter Alternative to Production Tooling

Tool selection is important to the medical device design and development and manufacturing processes, one that can make or break a project, and it’s not a cut-and-dry decision. There are actually three different types of tooling: prototype tooling, bridge tooling, and production tooling. Each type has its pros and cons, so it’s necessary for device developers to look at the cost, purpose, and timeline of a project before deciding on the right route. Many manufacturers today are seeing the benefits of investing in a prototype tooling phase. Let’s go over why that might be and what sets prototype tooling apart from product tooling.

What Is Prototype Tooling?

Prototype tooling is a good way to develop and test your products for fit, form, and function. It’s best utilized for low-volume runs when you’re still in the experimental design phase. Since design and validation processes don’t usually involve high-volume production, you don’t need robust tooling here.

A quality tooling partner will analyze the tooling process and see how it will translate to a larger scale, as well as advise on any adjustments that should be made. These lessons learned during the prototype and tooling phase greatly help inform later stages of the concept to commercialization process.

What Is Production Tooling?

Production tooling is the most robust of the three types. It focuses on the final product and is meant for commercial scale production. Because of this, it’s the most involved, making it the most costly and time-intensive tooling. Investing in high quality production tooling will pay dividends in the form of better quality, less scrap, faster cycle times, and fewer long-term issues.

Prototype vs. Production Tooling: What’s the Difference?

Prototype tooling varies from production tooling in a few ways. First, the timelines are different. Production tooling timing may be better suited for overall systems, but prototype tooling is a better use of time if just one part of the overall system needs to be tested. Waiting for product tooling in this case would be a costly use of time. A simple prototype tool will allow for earlier evaluation of the part.

Production quantity is also a factor. High-production molds tend to be highly automated, with wear maintenance provisions, sensing, and process control capability built into the design. They’re also often multi-cavity, allowing multiple parts of the same design to be molded at the same time. Prototype molds, however, have far less automation and cavities, so they’re less expensive and have a quicker development time.

Another difference is the use of soft tooling vs hard tooling materials. Production tooling is often made from hardened P20, H13, or other tool steel suitable for repeated use and long tool life. Heat-treating and surface hardening or plating are also utilized. Prototype tools, by contrast, are called soft tools. Soft tooling is a common method in the plastic injection molding industry. Prototype injection molding utilizes aluminum or mild steels, which can be cut quicker during the machining process and allow for faster and more cost-effective tools. This tool life may be more limited, however, depending on the plastic you’ll be molding, and injection molding can still be expensive if your volumes aren’t high enough.

What Are the Benefits of Prototype Tooling?

The bottom line is that, compared to production tooling, prototype tooling is quicker and more affordable given the right circumstances.

It allows you to make the most of research and development resources by making a sample model that can give you a proof of concept and the ability to use that sample to run tests. Prototype tooling also gives you a jumping off point to make plan adjustments and refinements and create a product that meets objectives. You can identify faults in the pre-production tooling phase, which can save you considerable money down the line.

Other benefits of prototype tooling include:

  • Being able to test different plastic materials
  • Confirming part geometry
  • Getting the insight needed to properly place gates

What’s observed in the prototype injection molding phase will ultimately lead to a better final design that doesn’t need as many revisions, reduced production time, and a better ROI.

Getting the most out of prototype tooling requires working with an experienced tooling partner. Gilero specializes in medical device design and development with unique plastic injection molding services that result in smarter products and processes. We also have equipment and capabilities to fabricate rapid prototypes in-house, allowing us to evaluate the form, fit, and function of devices. Contact us to learn more.

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