Before production tooling and during product development, prototype tooling is carried out. It utilizes rapid molds to produce a small batch of parts or products to do testing within a short turnaround time. Prototype tooling is not a must in product development. Learning more about it allows you to decide if prototype tooling is needed or just one-off prototypes are your case.

What is prototype tooling?

Prototype tooling refers to the process of creating molds or tooling that are used to produce prototypes of a product. These molds or tooling are typically made using materials such as aluminum, steel, plastic, or silicone, and are designed to create a physical representation of a product that can be tested and evaluated before final production. Prototype tooling is an important step in the product development process, as it allows designers and engineers to refine their designs and make any necessary changes before investing in expensive production tooling.


Benefits of prototype tooling

1. Enables the quick production of small batches of products, saving time and costs.

2. Helps verify the feasibility of design samples, identify problems promptly, and make necessary adjustments to improve product development efficiency.

3. Facilitates appearance and assembly inspections, allowing customers to evaluate a product's quality and appearance more intuitively.

4. Enables functional debugging, identifying issues, and optimizing them on time to improve product performance and quality.

What is the difference between production tooling and prototype tooling?

Different production objects

Production tooling is used to create the final product at scale. It involves making molds or tools to produce large quantities of the product quickly and efficiently. Production tooling is typically made with high-quality materials that can withstand the stress of high-volume production runs.

Prototype tooling, on the other hand, is used to create a small number of prototypes of a product. The purpose of prototype tooling is to test and evaluate the design of a product before it goes into full-scale production. Prototype tooling is often made with less expensive materials than production tooling, as it is not designed to withstand the stress of high-volume production runs.

Different manufacturing processes

Prototype tooling often involves rapid manufacturing techniques like vacuum casting, rapid tooling (RT), and reaction injection molding (RIM), whereas another tooling requires processes such as manufacturing, component machining, and assembly.

Different mold materials

Prototype tooling typically uses soft molds such as silicone molds, epoxy resin molds, ABS molds, and aluminum molds, with a shorter turnaround time and mold life. In contrast, production molds are steel molds. 

Different part materials

Production tooling creates parts in production-grade materials. Some prototype tooling processes can do it as well. However, methods like vacuum casting can only produce parts with properties similar to end products. These parts are not suitable for material testing, only for structural and functional validations.

Different tolerances

Production tooling surely has tighter tolerances than prototype tooling. When using hard molds, prototype tooling can receive production-grade tolerances.

Techniques for prototype tooling

Vacuum casting

Vacuum casting is a popular rapid prototyping technique that involves creating a soft silicone mold of an existing master in a vacuum environment. By pouring PU(polyurethane) material into the mold under vacuum, vacuum casting produces replicas identical to the original pattern. This method enables the production of products with various functional characteristics similar to engineering plastics and is also suitable for small-scale production. 

The material properties can be similar to ABS, PC, PMMA, soft rubber, and more. The tool life is usually 10 to 20 shots.


Reaction injection molding

Reaction injection molding(RIM) is usually mentioned together with vacuum casting. Because the material it uses is also PU, but a different one. It mixes two or more liquid raw materials, which are pre-prepared in specific proportions, using a metering pump and a mixing head. The resulting mixture is then continuously injected into the mold where it reacts and solidifies. The ratio of the mixture is adjusted by changing the pump speed, while the injection volume is controlled by the unit discharge of the pump and the injection time. 

The mold materials are ABS, epoxy resin, aluminum, or steel. The material properties can be similar to ABS, PP, structural foam, or rubber. The tool life is usually over 100 shots. Compared with vacuum casting, RIM is more suitable for producing cover parts with simple structures and large and unevenly thick-walled products in small quantities.


Rapid tooling

Rapid tooling is a manufacturing process that combines rapid prototyping technology with traditional injection molding molds. It involves creating simplified molds, such as injection aluminum or simple steel molds, commonly used for small-scale plastic injection production due to their low cost and short cycle times. The tools can be molds, dies, or patterns. They can last 100 to 5,000 shots. The part material can be production-grade, including some special materials.


Who can do prototype tooling?

Some production tooling vendors also offer prototype tooling services. All rapid prototyping suppliers provide prototype tooling. Choosing the right one can result in a successful product launch.

Local vendors v.s. abroad vendors

If you are in developed countries, the costs are much higher than those of developing countries like China. Working local vendors is surely more under control. You can easily meet them in person and visit their operational sites. The shipping time is usually shorter. After-sales issues are also easier to deal with. 

While many abroad vendors can now provide quality prototypes at low costs. As the quantities of prototype tooling parts are low, international expresses are usually the first choices with an average delivery time of 4 to 7 days. Take Chinese vendors as an example. Because Chinese people are diligent, they can keep the lead time short. So even if there is a longer shipping time, they can easily meet your time frame. You can consider abroad vendors when your budgets are tight or when you want to make more profits.

New vendors v.s. regular vendors

Regular vendors are safe options. You have already gone through the transition period. Your communication is smooth. You are very familiar with each other’s working habits. Selecting new vendors is not easy and may be risky. But there may be surprises. Starting with small trial orders is easy and can help you evaluate new vendors straightforwardly.

Final words

In product development, when a small batch of prototypes is needed for testing and validation, prototype tooling is involved. By leveraging the technology, product designers and manufacturers can accelerate the development process, reduce costs, and ultimately bring better products to market faster.

Have questions? Drop a line to reach out to our prototype tooling experts today! Let’s talk about your prototype tooling options!