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A critical component to setting up a prototyping lab is making sure you choose the right equipment matched to your specific needs.
There are many facets to deciding what equipment—and what capabilities—to bring in-house. Beyond functional requirements, you have to consider significant issues around safety, controllability, training, and maintenance. Some of the larger pieces of equipment are very maintenance intensive, and it can be a full-time job keeping everything running and within specification.
What equipment you choose depends on how you’re prototyping and manufacturing. For different applications, look at additive, subtractive, and hybrid processes. Those three pillars will help you arrive at an understanding of how to build capability in the space.
Subtractive is typically the easiest choice, since it’s been around the longest.
At the Autodesk Technology Centers, the team focused on milling and turning. They looked at machining centers: both three and five-axis, as well as turning centers, with and without live tooling.
The Autodesk Technology Centers determined for their three-axis machining center a 50” x 30” x 30” work envelope was the right fit. In addition, they wanted five-axis capabilities because of the flexibility.
The additive side of manufacturing and prototyping experiences new and different innovations on a regular basis. Two materials used in additive manufacturing stand out: polymer and metal. Polymer has a relatively low barrier of entry.
On the metal side, there were a couple of different options to consider, like a Desktop Metal machine, which would be an economical option. While it’s not a machine that actually gives you a truly usable metal part—it’s “metal-like,” giving you an idea of the finished part, but without the strength characteristics of a metal. Similar to the metal injection mold process, it has its place within prototyping industries for people who want to get quick insights and proofs of concept.
Hybrid machines leverage both additive and subtractive processes, so the user would be able to do metal additive initially, and then subtractive after. An all-in-one system, utilizes a DED (direct energy deposition) process. Basically, a MIG welder on a machining center builds up a part then post-machines it afterwards.
Everything above was focused on creating metal parts and prototypes. If you get into other materials, you would follow a similar decision-making process.
Prototyping Flexibility with DATRON
When you’re just starting up a prototyping lab, flexibility is important. This makes the DATRON M8Cube an ideal choice, with the neo being another excellent option, depending on your lab and part sizes. The work envelope is smaller on a neo, but it’s still a very capable machine, able to fit through a standard size doorway.
Evaluating rapid prototyping equipment involves identifying the quality of the part you want to create. For a relatively low investment, you can buy an entry-level 3D printer. But if you’re planning to prototype a consumer device or a part that you expect to manufacture and sell high volumes of, iteration can actually take longer with a 3D printer. Since you might not get a good representation of what your final product will be in terms of material or quality, you may find yourself disappointed with the results. Furthermore, depending on the 3D printing material, your part may only be useful for proof of concept.
This is also true for lower-end CNC machines.
If you’re creating a rapid prototyping environment and you’re using a small desktop CNC machine—even if they seem to have most of the same specs on paper—one of the biggest hidden factors is that they require a lot of tinkering to achieve high quality parts or tight tolerances. These hobby machines require a certain level of skill to maintain, manipulate, and provide the results most designers and engineers are really looking for.
With a DATRON, you get to a high-quality finished part faster, with repeatable results.