What is 3D Printing?
3D printing is an additive manufacturing process where a three-dimensional object can be created by precisely adding layers of material. It is revolutionizing countless industries and offers previously unimaginable levels of customizability and convenience. 3D printing is able to produce complex parts that are literally impossible through traditional methods, all that is required is a CAD drawing. As it is an additive process, parts can be made with the absolute minimum of waste, and the fast nature of the technique makes it ideal for modern industries that can’t afford to wait around.
Who is 3D printing for?
3D printing is one of the most versatile manufacturing techniques available and can be used in almost any industry. It is best put to use in cases where a part or product is highly complex in shape, for example lattice structures, or where internal detailing is required. It is also particularly suited to rapid manufacturing, and often a 3D printer can produce a finished product without the need for further assembly. It is also useful for extremely short runs, for example only one or two prototypes, as there are no tooling costs and no need to produce a mold.
First, a detailed CAD file imported into 3D printing software (Magics). This software analyses the CAD drawing and breaks it down into ultra-thin cross-sectional layers. An engineer will analyse the object to be printed and decide whether it needs additional supports to be printed so that the structure can remain stable. This additional material is later removed in post-production. The printer head is laser controlled and gradually builds up the object by working along the thin cross sections identified by the software. A wide range of materials are available, and this range is increasing all the time as the technology becomes more advanced.
What is CNC machining?
CNC (Computer Numerical Control) machining is a subtractive process that uses precision tools to cut away material to produce the desired part or product. The software controlled tool head is far more precise than any human could ever be, allowing for exact replications.
Who is CNC machining for?
CNC machining is better suited to working with metals than 3D printing, although it is also possible to 3D print metal. Other materials often used with CNC machining include wood, foams, and wax, and it should be noted that different tools are required for each type of material. CNC machining is slower to set-up than 3D printing, but once prepared the subtractive method is significantly faster than the additive method employed by 3D printing. CNC machining is also generally more accurate than 3D printing, with tolerances as low as 0.001 mm. The downside of CNC machining is that highly complex designs may not be possible to produce due to tool access issues. In summary, CNC machining is best for relatively simple designs using traditional materials like metal or wood, and where a high level of precision is required.
The process for CNC machining is somewhat similar to 3D printing. As with 3D printing, a detailed CAD drawing is necessary, which is analyzed by a technician and imported into specialized software. In the case of CNC machining, at ProtoFab we convert files into the format and import into Mastercam. During the programming phase, the technician has to decide which type of cutting tool to use based on the materials being used and any specific challenges caused by the shape. Once the tools are ready and the programming is complete, the cutting process can begin. Both CNC milling and CNC turning are available at ProtoFab. Milling is the method used for regular parts, and turning is used for parts with cylindrical features. Once cutting is complete, each part is taken to post-production where the finishing process begins.
What Is Low-Volume Manufacturing?
With the continued development of modern manfacturing techniques and businesses increasingly looking for flexibility in production, low-volume manufacturing has become much more popular in recent years. As a term it is hard to define specifically, but we can say low-volume manufacturing involves significantly lower numbers than full-scale production and uses more flexible techniques. At ProtoFab we specialize in this type of manufacturing and can make the process as simple and effective as possible.
The Benefits of Low-Volume Manufacturing
There are at least 3 reasons why companies chose low-volume manufacturing. First of all, using low-volume manufacturing can cut down on a lot of the costs associated with full-scale production. Even up to around 100,000 units it can still be more economical to use low-volume manufacturing, depending on the materials used. For lower volumes, for example a few thousand, the cost benefit can be enormous.
Secondly, low-volume manufacturing is inherently more flexible. Tweaks can be made easily and adjustments can often be made reactively based in consumer feedback. With mass-production this kind of tweaking is usually out of the question and minor flaws are hard-baked into the entire run. Low-volume manufacturing is also much faster and can achieve extremely quick time to market, which is critical in some industries.
Finally, low-volume manufacturing can be used as a bridge to full-scale production. The initial run can be done low-volume to keep costs down and retain flexibility, and once the product has proven to be a success and any issues have been ironed out production can be switched to full-scale. All in all, low-volume manufacturing provides a multitude of benefits and is worth considering for a wide range of industries and product types. Feel free to contact us to learn more.
What is plastic injection molding?
Plastic injection molding is one of the fastest manufacturing techniques available. Liquid plastic is injected into a mold where it is cooled, solidifies, and is ejected. The same mold can be used countless times and the process of producing a part can take as little as a few seconds. Thousands of different plastic types are available and different polishes and textures can be applied, allowing for a huge degree of customization and flexibility.
Who is plastic injection molding for?
Plastic injection molding is great for those looking to produce relatively large quantities of parts or products quickly and economically. After the initial tooling cost, further costs are very low so it makes sense to use plastic injection molding for larger runs. If you only require a small number of prototypes, 3D printing is likely to be more economical. Unlike vacuum casting, a single mold can be used over and over again more than 100 thousand times, so usually only a single mold is required. The ability to mix different types of plastic (through co-injection molding) is another reason why people choose plastic injection molding. For other production techniques it may be difficult to produce designs with mixed materials. Common uses for plastic injection molding include pilot runs, low-volume production, and on-demand parts.
First of all, a mold is produced, usually CNC machined aluminum. The material comes in the form of pellets, which are melted down in a barrel. This liquid is then compressed and injected into the mold through the mold’s runner system, where it quickly solidifies. Ejector pins then eject the solid part into a loading bin, and the process can be repeated again. The length of time it takes for each part to be produced depends on its size and the material used. This ranges from just a few seconds for small designs up to one or two minutes for larger, more complex designs. It should be noted that the production phase is completely automated, so labor costs are kept to a minimum.
What is vacuum casting?
Vacuum casting uses a vacuum chamber to force liquid plastic into a pre-made mold, where it then solidifies. The molds are usually made from silicone rubber, and are in turn based on a master model.
Who is vacuum casting for?
Vacuum casting is the perfect solution for low-cost rapid prototyping. The molds can be made cheaply and are highly detailed so prototypes require little post-production. Each mold is good for around 50 copies and can be produced quickly. For short run batches the technique is more economical than plastic injection molding due to the initial tooling costs of injection molding. However, for long run batches vacuum casting is less suitable.
The first thing required is a master model. This can be supplied by the customer, but is most commonly produced by ProtoFab using CNC machining. The master model is usually made of metal, but plastic is also acceptable, the main requirement is it can withstand temperatures of 40°C for a prolonged period. The master model is placed in a casting box and a silicone rubber mold is made in two parts. The mold has a series of very small holes cut in it to allow air to escape and prevent pressure from building up to much.
The mold is exact opposite of the master, so all that’s required is to fill the mold with material and a copy can be produced. However, simply pouring liquid material into the mold can sometimes produce inadequate results, so a vacuum chamber is required to force the material into even the tiniest gaps, ensuring a perfect copy. Once the material has filled the mold it is placed in a curing oven until the new object has completely solidified. It is then ejected from the mold and the process can begin again. Molds can be used multiple times up to a maximum of around 50 without any decrease in the quality of the copies.
What is finishing?
As the name suggests, finishing is the final stage of production, and comes after manufacturing itself. At ProtoFab we offer a wide range of finishing services, including painting, anodizing, and vapor polishing. Our finishing teams are able to adapt to highly specific requirements and have access to a wide range of advanced technologies, allowing for almost limitless customization at the finishing phase.
Painting – This is far more complex than simply slapping on a coat of paint. The slightest imperfections introduced at the painting phase can spoil a product, and it is important to ensure total uniformity across a run. Painting takes place under laboratory conditions in a climate controlled chamber. A wide variety of paint finishes are available, including matte, gloss, semi-gloss, and metallic.
Color matching – We are very aware of the importance of getting an exact match with the intended color. Painting always takes place under a controlled environment with constant lighting and climatic conditions which can avoid some of the common issues when matching visually from a sample. Aside from matching from a physical sample, we are also able to achieve exact matches from Pantone colors.
Sanding and polishing – We are able to provide highly customized finishes ranging from mirror polishing to rough sanding. Sanding can also be used to prepare a product for different paint finishes, such as matte.
Vapor polishing – This is an advanced technique for ironing out tiny imperfections, even in difficult to reach areas. The surface of the plastic is blasted with chemical vapor which causes the immediate surface to melt, but only to a tiny depth. As it rehardens, any small imperfections disappear and the finish is smooth and uniform. Note this technique is only available for plastics.
Blasting – Blasting is a simple but effective method of finishing, and comes in many forms and variations. Manufactured parts and products can be blasted by grit, water, or any number of other materials in order to achieve specific results.
Pad printing – This is used to print a 2D pattern on surfaces that would otherwise be difficult to print on, for example on convex or concave surfaces. It works by transferring material (usually ink or dye) via an etched area on a silicone pad. When the pad is pressed against a surface the material leaves the pad and is transferred across. Other printing techniques offer by ProtoFab include silk-screening.
We are one of the first Protofab branches in the world. We have recently launched our first showroom in Norway, and currently are also opening a branch in Poland. We can be reached from all over Northern Europe, a short distance from Sandefjord Airport (Near Oslo).