Metal prototypes are important to companies in many industries, from aerospace to electronics, because effective metal prototypes can produce better finished products.
This article discusses the importance of metal prototypes and explores how they are superior to plastic prototypes. It also discusses the various effective methods for creating metal prototypes: CNC machining, 3D printing (additive manufacturing), sheet metal forming, casting, and extrusion.
In manufacturing, a prototype is a model or draft of a part. Prototypes are built long before manufacturing begins, allowing designers to test and develop parts.
Depending on the manufacturing process used for prototyping, prototypes can be made from a variety of materials.
Metal prototypes are prototypes made using metal fabrication techniques such as CNC machining, casting, or sheet metal forming. They can be made from aluminum, steel, or any other material chosen by the engineering team.
While metal is typically used for pre-production prototypes - advanced prototypes that closely resemble the final part - it can also be used for early prototypes. Metal may be preferable for functional or aesthetic reasons, or both.
In some cases, engineers may create plastic prototypes for parts that will eventually be made of metal.
This can happen for a number of reasons. For one thing, many prototypes have no functional or mechanical role, so it does not matter whether they have certain properties (such as strength, ductility, and electrical conductivity).
If the material properties of metal prototypes are not important, then it makes sense to use inexpensive and readily available materials to create the prototypes. In many cases, plastic is the cheapest option.
Considering the significance of material properties, using cost-effective and easily accessible materials for prototyping purposes is a logical choice. In numerous scenarios, protomold plastics emerge as the most economical option, allowing for the creation of prototypes that sufficiently serve their purpose while being budget-friendly.
However, some prototypes do have special features.
Functional prototypes, hybrid prototypes, and pre-production prototypes all need to perform a certain role, which may require specific material properties. Metals are usually the best provider of these properties.
Even non-functional prototypes can benefit from metals. A cosmetic prototype used to demonstrate a concept usually looks better when made of metal, especially if the part will also be mass produced in metal.
Thus, metal prototyping may increase the chances of early investment and commercial success.
There are also important long-term cost advantages to building metal prototypes.
If the part will eventually be mass-produced in metal, it is relatively easy to turn a metal prototype into a finished metal product. On the other hand, plastic 3D printed prototypes are not easily converted to metal production parts.