Prototype manufacture is an essential phase in the new product design process. The entire process of crafting a prototype is intricate. Gaining knowledge of these processes can greatly benefit designers and engineers in their design and engineering tasks, ensuring the manufacturability of their designs and the ability to bring their ideas to life for product design by prototype manufacture. Join us as we delve into the remarkable journey of prototyping.

What is prototyping?

Prototyping creates a preliminary or early version of a product, system, or component to test, evaluate, and refine its design before moving on to the final production stage. Though prototypes can be physical, digital, or conceptual models that represent the key features and functionalities of the intended product, we are talking about physical prototypes in this article.

What are the different types of prototypes?

The classification of prototypes can be based on various criteria, such as materials, processes, and purposes. For a better general understanding, we will focus on the purposes of prototypes.

Prototypes serve many purposes during the product development process, each addressing specific aspects of design, functionality, and feasibility. Some common types of prototypes based on purpose include:

Appearance prototype

An appearance prototype primarily focuses on evaluating the product's visual design to ensure it aligns with aesthetic standards. It requires an appealing looking, and precise color matching, and places less emphasis on internal processing, mainly showcasing the external structure.


Structural prototype

The main objective of a structural prototype is to assess structural integrity and rationality. It demands higher dimensional accuracy and places a relatively lower focus on appearance. During production, it is essential to test whether the structure meets requirements and whether it can be integrated into the appropriate position. An unreasonable structure may lead to interference during future installation and use.


Functional prototype

The functional prototype aims to replicate the appearance, structure, and functionality of the end-use product. It can be regarded as a pre-market finished product. Functional prototypes present the highest challenge and requirements among all prototype types, resulting in a higher price point.


What are the processes of prototyping?

Various prototyping processes are employed to produce prototypes with different levels of detail, functionality, and material properties. 

CNC machining

CNC (Computer Numerical Control) machining is based on an automated machine equipped with a program control system. This control system can logically process programs with specified control codes or other symbolic instructions, decode them, and subsequently cause the machine tool to move and process parts. It is a subtractive manufacturing that is highly precise and suitable for creating prototypes with complex geometries and tight tolerances. CNC machining can work with a wide range of materials, including metals, plastics, and composites. Due to its accuracy and versatility, CNC machining is widely used in various industries for creating functional prototypes, as well as final products.


3D printing

3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, is a process that creates three-dimensional objects by depositing material layer by layer according to a digital model. It allows for rapid prototyping with minimal material waste and can produce complex shapes that may be difficult or impossible to achieve with traditional manufacturing methods. With advancements in 3D printing technology, many materials can be used, such as plastics, metals, ceramics, and even biological materials. 3D printing is ideal for creating conceptual models, visual prototypes, and functional prototypes with intricate geometries.


Vacuum casting

Vacuum casting is a cost-effective method for producing small quantities of plastic or rubber prototypes or parts using a silicone mold. The process begins with making a master model, typically using CNC machining or 3D printing. A silicone mold is then formed around the master model, and the model is removed, leaving a cavity in the mold. Liquid resin is poured into the cavity, and a vacuum is applied to remove air bubbles. The PU (polyurethane) resin cures within the mold, forming the desired prototype or part. Vacuum casting is suitable for creating detailed prototypes with excellent surface finishes and can accommodate a range of PU resins that simulate various material properties.


Sheet metal fabrication

Sheet metal fabrication is a process that involves cutting, bending, and assembling metal sheets within 6 mm thick to create prototypes or parts. It is commonly used for producing enclosures, brackets, and chassis components in industries such as automotive, aerospace, and electronics. Sheet metal fabrication processes include laser cutting, waterjet cutting, punching, bending, stamping, welding, etc. It is ideal for creating durable prototypes or parts with accurate dimensions and great structural integrity.


Reaction injection molding (RIM)

Reaction injection molding (RIM) is a low-pressure molding process that involves mixing two liquid components (polyol and isocyanate) and injecting them into a closed mold where they react and solidify into the desired shape. RIM is suitable for creating large, lightweight prototypes or parts with complex geometries and varying wall thicknesses. The materials for RIM are also called PU (polyurethane) which is different from PU for vacuum casting. RIM is often used for producing automotive components, enclosures, and structural foam parts.


Other processes

Beyond the essential manufacturing steps, the entire prototyping process encompasses various aspects such as manual handling and surface treatments. Surface treatments involve a broad array of techniques and often require collaboration with multiple subcontractors for completion. Therefore, a prototype manufacturer's supplier network significantly impacts its overall processing capabilities.

The type of prototype is determined by its purpose, which subsequently influences the specific processing approach. The primary focus lies in the selection of processing methods and surface treatment solutions. For example, if a prototype is intended for display purposes, processing the internal structure may be unnecessary, placing greater importance on surface treatments instead.

About X Rapid Technologies

With over 10 years of industry expertise, we offer tailored prototyping solutions based on customers’ specific requirements. What are your new product designs for prototype manufacture? Contact us to kickstart it today!