When engineers and project designers get started, it comes from a few sketches of a potential product or a device onto the favored CAD program. After that, though, a good model using sheet metal fabrication prototyping can play a key role in moving from sketch to sales display or purchase order
Coming up with an idea is one thing, but convincing executives to sign off on further development is critical. Having a few prototypes made up, offers a tangible example of what a team is looking to accomplish and can often make it easier to explain differences and benefits compared to existing devices on the market or that a firm already produces.
Ironing Out Literal Kinks with Sheet Metal Prototypes
Working with an experienced sheet metal fabricator, who does both prototyping runs and long runs, is critical. Metal is not paper and therefore cannot just be formed into any shape. The shape may look great on a 3D Cad program but it doesn’t mean that shape can be achieved by a sheet metal prototyping shop. Being able to foresee the production issues that will arise beyond the prototyping stage is a difficult task for those who are not working on both ends.
Another important aspect of the prototyping stage is finding a sheet metal fabricator with an array of capabilities all done in house. Problems can arise at any stage of a part’s production. Having a shop that has knowledge and experience in all areas will increase the likelihood of catching costly mistakes before they happen.
A sheet metal shop with a large variety of equipment is also an important factor to keep in mind. Having the ability to use CNC equipment such as: CNC Laser Cutting, CNC Laser/Turret combination machines, and CNC Press Brakes allows the engineers and designers to be more liberal with their designs. For example, CNC Laser Cutting allows for odd shapes to be accomplished, and having the combination of laser cutting with the CNC Turret presses allow you to also maintain tight tolerances on holes and cutouts.
Testing and Certification
After any necessary revisions, a mechanical engineering firm in Philadelphia or anywhere else needs to start testing. Using 3-D printing or plasticine pieces to start can save costs, but are typically not suitable for heat and stress tests, as the materials will warp and respond much differently than components that will later be made from metals. Likewise, any issues with corrosion or other environmental factors can’t be accounted without using the materials that will be found in the end product.
In the case of safety and radio emissions, testing using parts identical to production is typically required. Federal Communication Commission (FCC) electromagnetic interference (EMI) tests cannot be performed using prototype plastic housings and parts, as the plastic material offers no shielding of electromagnetic fields. If the design engineer is counting on the housing to provide shielding, EMI testing can only be performed using parts fabricated with the same material (i.e. metal) intended for the final product. Similarly the thermal and elastic properties of plastics are typically much different from metal alloys. Therefore many of the tests run by safety listing agencies, such as Underwriters Laboratories (UL) or Engineering Testing Laboratories (ETL) require sample units fabricated from parts identical in shape and composition to the final product. While many companies do preliminary in-house testing prior to safety agency submissions, running heat and stress tests with a nylon piece or other substitute may leave more questions than answers while they wait for approval by these various laboratories.
Designing Manufacturing Processes with Sheet Metal Prototypes
With production costs often the key element to a successful product, design for manufacturing (DFM) is a major step in today’s development processes. With a CAD blueprint in hand, there are a number of testing programs that can be performed prior to the existence of any physical parts, allowing designers to check final fit.
Without sheet metal fabrication prototyping, often more subtle elements of final assembly can be missed. For example, insertion of wiring harness assemblies, which may look acceptable in a CAD program, result in pinched or nicked wires in actual assembly. Or while the parts may fit, correctly, determining that tight space may slow factory worker assembly times to the point that the assembly line balance is thrown off. Manufacturing departments incorporating sheet metal prototypes in their design for manufacturing processes can test various tooling, and even determine whether or not it is cost-effective to produce the new design in the company’s facility.
Gaining Interest of Distributors and Consumers
Tactile reinforcement can play a key role in moving a buyer from interest to their checkbook or purchase order. In the same way a design and engineering team need to get executives to approve an idea, sheet metal prototypes give a sense of what an end product will look like prior to a full-scale production run. In turn, those orders help to fund manufacturing setup to ensure a smooth product launch.
While waiting for production tooling and first piece sampling to be completed, prototypes can still be used by sales staff to augment sales sheets and brochures, especially if it helps to highlight new features or benefits in a competitive market, such as a new speaker enclosure or new fixture.
Prototyping Between Concept and End Result
Being able to use sheet metal fabrication prototyping to try out different ideas and designs may not be necessary during the first stages with schematics. At a number of stages following that, from testing to setting up a production line, prototyping with sheet metal fabrication can save time and specifically money. While many people consider it as a cost-saving step before production, manufacturing departments can derive huge benefits from having the prototypes in hand as they design their production assembly processes.