Engineers have a multitude of reasons for creating physical prototypes. They need to get approval for their idea, ensure their concept meets their customers’ needs, and make sure their concept can sustain its integrity under use. They also need to verify that their concept can, in fact, be manufactured. Injection molding prototypes, 3D printed prototypes, and even cast urethane prototypes all prove valuable in product development.

Over the past year, Xcentric has conducted a number of surveys to get a view of how prototyping is impacting our customers’ product development. Our findings, while in some cases obvious, also revealed some surprises. Read on to see what we learned.

The Obvious

Some of our questions simply validated common knowledge.

In the course of moving a product through prototyping to production:

The uses for prototyping are mostly obvious.
  • 92% of our respondents say they need to provide an initial, low-cost physical prototype for approval from marketing, their Board of Directors, or other approval body
  • 58% say they need a physical prototype for stress testing including drop testing, hot/cold cycling, UV testing, and other testing requirements

While it may be a little surprising that more stress testing wasn’t required, it’s no surprise that nearly everyone requires a physical prototype at some point during product development. The composition of those prototypes has changed over time as technology has advanced. When asked, 95% use 3D printing/additive manufacturing for prototyping and 58% use injection molding prototyping. But only 26% have used cast urethane for prototyping. Our assessment is that cast urethane prototyping is not well known and, therefore, not often considered as a low-cost alternative to injection molding prototyping when 3D printed prototypes just won’t meet the engineer’s needs.

Also, and not surprising, changes to features within design are common. Any engineer who has worked on more than one project knows this to be true. Whether driven by added requirements, market testing, or manufacturability requirements, design changes come with the job. Our survey respondents told us:

  • 76% make frequent changes to features within their design and prototyping helps prove these out
  • 52% leverage prototyping to scale from low volume to high volume over time

The Not-So-Obvious

We also identified practices that make sense when you think about it but are so often missed by companies in product development that they aren’t obvious.

When to use each kind of prototyping isn't always obvious

50% of respondents acknowledge there are limitations and strengths for each prototyping process and they need to be more aware of when to leverage each. 54% say they need to look at immediate, midterm, and long-term requirements when evaluating how and when to use each type of prototyping. However, these acknowledgements happened only after learning use cases which show when and for what purpose different types of prototyping are used. Over 87% polled say they’ve had a project that might be a fit for multiple prototyping processes, leaving them unsure how to proceed.

We’ve all heard about, or even experienced, projects where production tooling has required changes. And, everyone knows about the factor of 10 for cost and timing – changes cost 10x as much and require 10x the time to execute in each successive step in product development. This logarithmic reality is why we try to keep changes early in development. And while everyone in product development knows this, the statistics are still surprising.

  • 83% of respondents say they’ve had to make changes to their tooling after it’s been built
  • 37% say they’ve had to completely scrap their tooling and start over

Both scenarios result in delayed product launch and significant cost increases.

The Head Scratchers

And, then there are the things that should be common sense but aren’t and leave us scratching our head.

  • 58% need a prototype for testing
  • 51% mainly or only do 3D printing for prototyping
  • 35% say their company has attempted to eliminate injection molding prototyping for all projects by using only 3D printing
  • 12% say their company had eliminated injection molding prototyping in favor of 3D printing for a few projects
  • Over 97% acknowledge product changes in pre-production or production resulting in cost and timing increases.
Eliminating certain types of prototyping just to save budget rarely makes sense.

Production delays often begin with strategy about prototyping. 3D Printed prototypes are rarely suitable for validation testing and NEVER provide lessons usable by the production mold maker. We learned that 87% of respondents begin thinking about Design for Manufacturability during CAD development. Yet too often the transition from CAD to Manufacturing omits the injection molding prototyping process where significant learning takes place that can be applied to full-scale manufacturing.

With so much failure to launch, something more needs to be done to ensure parts meet user requirements AND can be manufactured with efficiency and efficacy.

What Do We Make of All This?

Over 82% of our respondents said if they could save 4 to 6 weeks on their development cycle, they would get to market faster with a higher quality product. Yet nearly all respondents said they are unable to get to market on time, let alone shave time from launch, because of changes required in production that were missed earlier in the development process.

Skimping on, or skipping prototyping altogether, is proven costly. The cost and time saved by doing so is minified by the cost and time lost making changes at the production stage.

Understanding your prototyping options at each stage of product development is the first important step to gaining control over costly changes downstream. Each step can require a different level of physical evaluation, thus requiring a different type of prototype. Initial board approval and market tests may require a simple 3D printed part while full-scale testing will require a part that is manufactured with the same process and polymers that will be used in production. And, beyond part testing and evaluation, the lessons learned about the mold and molding process during injection molding prototyping are invaluable to the production team as they design, build, and run your production molds.

We had over 72% of our respondents tell us their molding projects require 50000 parts or fewer annually. Most do not realize that the aluminum tooling used for prototyping can support that annual volume for most polymers if built with the understanding that the mold will be used for both prototyping and production.

Once they understood that prototyping options vary depending on when in the product development process they fall, 32% felt they need to find a manufacturing partner who can better support them throughout the product development process. Xcentric’s technical account managers are trained and skilled at working with our clients from ideation through production. If you have a project you’d like to discuss, click the button below to request a consultation.