Rapid Prototyping Techniques Compared: Injection Molding, 3D Printing, and CNC Machined Prototypes

Elite Mold & Engineering specializes in three of the most flexible high-speed prototyping services on the market: rapid injection molding (RIM), 3D printing, and low-volume CNC machining solutions. Each of the three processes comes with its own set of unique benefits and disadvantages.

Namely, 3D printing and CNC machining both offer unbeatable quick turnaround, with the former typically being more cost effective and the latter offering increased material flexibility. On the other hand, prototype injection molding gives you a streamlined path to market if you plan on transitioning your project into ongoing production, or ramping up to high-volume runs.

Let’s take a deeper look into what sets these three rapid prototyping services apart so that you can choose the most optimal method for your project.

Injection Molded Prototyping Services

In general, injection molding is the best method to handle prototype projects that will transition into production molding down the line. Compared to both 3D printing and CNC machined plastics, injection molding is usually more cost-effective for large volume production runs – especially when it comes to less complex parts, or prototypes which have already successfully been carried through the iterative design process.

When it comes to prototype injection molding, we’ll often use special low-cost tooling to make your low-volume project more economical. Due to the shorter service life of prototype molds, we can use softer metals that are easier to machine – e.g. aluminum and softer steel alloys such as P20 mold steel.

The advantage is the softer alloys are both quicker and easier to machine and polish, allowing us to streamline your project and minimize your upfront costs. Nevertheless, even the lower cost of tooling development is a disadvantage of injection molding compared to 3D printing and CNC machining, which essentially just require your custom part file before manufacturing is underway.

The Advantages of Prototype Injection Molding:

  • A simplified and streamlined path to production.
  • Capable of production-ready prototype parts with full fidelity.
  • Easier to ramp up and meet high-volume requirements.

3D Printed Prototyping Services

The major advantage of additive manufacturing compared to injection molding for prototypes is that 3D printing is a tool-free process. That means there are no upfront tooling costs, and no lengthy process for us to develop the custom prototype molds.

3D printing is better optimized for small-batch prototype projects that require complex or intricate parts – especially prototyping that needs multiple iterative design phases to modify, test, and refine the final product.

The drawback is that additive manufacturing generally isn’t the best method for production runs, especially as higher volumes come into play. It can therefore sometimes be more complicated to ramp up manufacturing compared to developing your prototypes for injection molding from the start.

The Advantages of Additive Manufacturing for Prototyping:

  • No upfront tooling costs or costly development process for custom molds.
  • Extremely cost-effective, especially for projects that will see multiple design stages or implement iterative design processes.
  • Unbeatable turnaround: simply upload your part files and we can begin working on your custom prototypes immediately.

CNC Machined Prototyping Services

Like 3D printing, CNC machining gives you a streamlined path into the prototyping process. Essentially, all we need is a CAD file of your prototype part and a block of the correct material. Then it’s just a matter of properly setting up the machine and manufacturing begins immediately.

The major downside is that CNC machining generally isn’t the best method for full-scale production of complex plastic products. While modern multi-axis machines have no trouble meeting most complex design requirements, they simply don’t offer the throughput or efficiency you get with plastic injection molding. Therefore, it’s often better to utilize prototype injection molding or 3D printing if you plan to segue straight into production.

The Advantages of CNC Machining for Prototype Manufacturing:

  • Material flexibility: capable of manufacturing prototypes from virtually any engineering plastics as well as metals or even wood.
  • No upfront tooling costs or complex development process.
  • No delay in production: once we receive your part files and have the right materials, we can set up the machine and start churning out your prototypes.

Michigan’s Prototyping Specialist in Injection Molding, 3D Printing, and CNC Machining

Elite Mold & Engineering has remained one of Michigan’s leading prototype injection molding companies since 1982. Based out of Shelby Township, our state-of-the-art facility today integrates 3D printing and CNC machining services to provide our customers with the highest speed and highest flexibility possible. Our company is an ISO 9001:2015 certified and ITAR registered American manufacturer.

Published: January 22, 2024
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