Prototyping using CNC equipment is a definite alternative to the use of manual machines. While many companies rely on their toolrooms or small contract manufacturers to prototype parts on manually operated machinery prior to production, others are looking at CNC for protoypes. As more complicated equipment is designed, the time allocated to programming a CNC machine becomes a time saver over manual operations. Current equipment with multi-axis capabilities becomes more effective at prototyping as the part becomes more complicated. An advantage in CNC prototyping is that when it is completed the part is correct and already programmed for production. Product development to production time can be shortened by using a production-based machine for prototyping.
This efficiency depends on the programmer's ability. When looking for a contract manufacturer of CNC prototyping, this specifier should review the complexity and quality of the vendor's present work. Having a CNC does not mean there is a lot of programming talent available. Look at the level of machinery that is being used. There is a big difference between a 4-axis machining center and a knee mill with a CNC controller. The more operations that can be accomplished without removing the part from the machine the more efficient the process. Once the basic prototype has been programmed, changes required are much easier to accomplish through programming modifications when the next version is made. Another important consideration is the contractor's software. Is it able to understand a 3D part and make changes easily when required? It is much easier to deal with someone who has software compatible with the design engineer's system.
Make sure that what is made can be verified. If your supplier does not have the proper quality control gauging to measure what he has made and verify that the part is to print, resources are being wasted. A Coordinate Measuring Machine is an asset when looking at a vendor. Are his measuring instruments up to the task and are they calibrated on a regular basis? If not, locate another source. Also expect to receive a full dimensional report from the manufacturer to allow you to verify his accuracy. If the prototype is not accurate at the starting point it is out of control and the whole project is in jeopardy.
Finding a manufacturer who can get the prototype into production when it is finished is important. This may not be the same company the purchasing department chooses after the product is up and running for some time, but it should be a manufacturer who can get up to initial production quantities as quickly and efficiently as possible. The easiest choice, of course, would be the firm that did the prototyping originally.
CNC prototyping also has advantages and should be used as an alternative to today's very popular rapid prototyping techniques. Rapid prototyping systems have an advantage of speed but CNC prototyping will let the user handle and feel the part in the material is designed to be manufactured in, which many times is a big advantage to the engineer.
Is there still a place for manual machine prototyping? Yes, and sometimes it's the only way to go. But more and more companies are looking to CNC prototyping to get the job done. It is the choice of the engineer as to which direction to follow; therefore, he must understand the alternatives.
Fundamental to this discipline are the requirements of programming skills that complete prototyping quickly, the ability to read prints through computer solid modeling programs, and the capability to convert into machine language will create a prototype part superior to anything generated out of the toolroom. The primary advantage of CNC prototyping is that the parts are programmed and ready for production without additional tasks.
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