Collaborative Post

Bridging the Gap Between Prototyping and Production

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In a fast-paced market it’s crucial to get new products out as soon as possible, the speed with which you can do this can make all the difference between success and failure of a product. However, there are numerous obstacles that can stand in the way. So, why is it so important to close the gap between prototyping and production stages and how does this help maintain an advantage over competitors?

Photo by Med Badr Chemmaoui on Unsplash
Photo by Med Badr Chemmaoui on Unsplash

The product development cycle 

In manufacturing, the ‘idea’ creation stage could be perceived as the most challenging aspect new product development, but, compared to other phases in the overall process, it is not typically the most time-consuming phase once an idea has been ‘hatched’. The same can be said for the design phase where discussions take place about a new product’s viability and functionality, modification and ideas are brought to life more with computer-aided designs (CAD) software. 

The prototyping phase 

Speed is a major factor when it comes to getting new products to market and although the initial stages do require time, the prototyping stage can be fraught with issues. The main being the period it takes for steel moulds to be produced, often months, and if there are potential changes required to the tooling this affects crucial lead times and ultimately, time to market is delayed. Speed is of the essence in these circumstances, and this is where bridge tooling comes in.  

Injection moulding and its inherent advantages of producing high-quality products, as well as high volume and uniformity are well known. However, when it comes to prototyping, the task of producing low volumes to correct any early product faults, without incurring greater costs, has been a challenge. 

What is bridge tooling? 

To combat blockages in the new product development process, bridge tooling, sometimes referred to as pilot production, soft tooling, aluminium production tooling or rapid tooling, is a phase in product development when a prototype has been completed and mass production is awaiting. Bridging in this sense means to link together the process of prototyping and final production.

Bridging tools are not made from steel but from aluminium or aluminium alloys, which allow for faster machining, improving the product to market time, facilitating a faster production of quality plastic moulds, with the potential to produce thousands of moulds. 

Bridge tooling benefits 

There are numerous benefits of incorporating bridging tooling to production processes, this is because: 

  • It’s cost effective, as large bulk production brings down overall cost 
  • It allows for purposeful testing
  • It’s possible to produce medium to high quantities 
  • Less tooling manufacture time is required, reducing time to market to often days instead of months or weeks 
  • It provides confidence that a product is capable of being moulded prior to mass production 
  • It can be used to test products with thousands of customers before full production – if tweaking is required this can be done simply with aluminium 

Prototyping a process

In addition, although conventional steel tooling does have capabilities that rapid tooling does not, for example, conformal cooling channels (passageways which cool down a mould) it is possible to accelerate production through balancing mould wall thickness. This means that the ‘process’ that produces the parts is prototyped, and not just the ‘part’. This allows for a significant opportunity where process glitches and hiccups can be addressed early on, further increasing chances of an early break into the market. 

Why aluminium? 

Using aluminium tooling means that mould changes can be completed faster, this is because it is able to heat up and cool down quicker than steel can because it has a higher heat dissipation rate. It still maintains the strength and high density required for injection moulding thanks to its ingredients of copper, zinc and magnesium. Therefore, aluminium moulds provide distinct advantages in production cycle times. 

Advantages of aluminium instead of steel, include: 

Suitability for low volume production. 

With a much lower cost, and capability for producing high quality parts in their tens of thousands, aluminium is ideal (note, there can be exceptions depending on specific project requirements). 

Ease of modification and repair 

Aluminium can be more easily repaired if it becomes damaged during production, for example, much more so than steel which is a harder material. 

Costs of tooling 

Although the overall investment of producing plastic moulds varies considerably, aluminium tooling has a cost advantage over steel when it comes to initial costs and can be up to around 40% cheaper, with the major savings made as a result of being able to produce short lead times. 

Heat dissipation 

Aluminium’s heat dissipation capabilities provide a dual advantage. Because cooling and heating times are significantly reduced thanks to aluminium’s unique properties, time to market is speeded up, and because those times are more consistent and there’s more uniform heating, there’s fewer defective parts, for example, those with voids or burn marks.