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Which Tooling Option is Best for Rapid Prototyping?

For manufacturing industries such as aerospace, automotive, and marine, prototyping is a familiar part of the product development process, commonly used for R&D testing, product demonstrations, and regulatory certifications. During the prototyping phase, design engineers and program managers have the challenge of keeping costs low and turnaround times fast while still producing accurate models. These objectives are top-of-mind when selecting the best tooling method, whether you’re creating prototype parts, one-off components, or composite layup tools. The tooling option you choose affects the project budget, time-to-market, and product quality – so which method is best for your application?

In order to keep the prototyping process fast and economical, many people turn to wood structures, composites, clays, plasters, and even cheaper fiberglass materials for their tooling needs. However, these materials oftentimes cannot handle the curing process, dimensional accuracy, complexity, and other specifications. When this is the case, the natural inclination may be to jump straight to hard tooling options such as ceramics, aluminum, steel, and Invar steel alloy. These hard tooling materials are excellent for long-term production runs or applications with extremely tight tolerances, but their higher prices and lengthier lead times are not always conducive for rapid prototyping or low-volume applications.

Due to its cost and time savings, soft tooling is commonly used for prototyping and custom builds in passenger aircraft, transportation vehicles, and other manufacturing industries.

One option for meeting these application requirements while keeping cost down and accommodating tight turn times is to use high-performance polyurethane foam tooling for proofs-of-concept, demo models, and one-off builds. Contrary to popular misconceptions, foam does not produce off-gassing, does not have cure inhibition issues, and is available with a 7-day lead time for sheet stock, in a variety of formulations, sizes, and density. Recently, an aerospace manufacturer approached us about rapid prototyping for composite products used in aircraft interiors. They were investigating new methods of making mold tools for the prototypes, with specifications that included:

  • Maximum of 12 pulls per tool
  • Temperatures of 266°F (130°C)
  • Maximum pressure of 87 psi (600 kPa)

After speaking to the client about their application, we quickly provided them with a recommendation on the most appropriate foam for the project, technical documentation with further details, a sample sheet of material to experiment with, and an estimated cost. For rapid prototyping applications like this where speed is of the essence, soft tooling has the unique capability of meeting your engineering challenges at a fraction of the cost of hard tooling.

To learn more about prototyping applications and real-world use cases using soft tooling, read the full whitepaper Fast, Economical Tooling Options for Prototyping and Custom Builds.

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