Building "Awkward" numbers of units
Building a unit or two of a product? Easy, just look at additive 3D printing techniques like SLA (Stereolithography) to make your first parts. It likely won’t be cost effective and may not be as refined as you’d like but good enough to prove the concept and discover potential design flaws. The 3D printing industry continues to outdo itself with continuous improvements to techniques, materials, and surface finish, yet it has never really penetrated the consumer market beyond hobbyists and early adopters. 3D printing often comes up in casual conversation when talking about manufacturing and I often ask if they’ve ever purchased a 3D printed product. I have yet to come across anyone that has actually paid for a 3D product. There’s a good reason for this. As much as 3D printing improves it will always lag behind molded production processes in cost and scale. There might be some new niche applications where 3D printing can achieve designs injection molding cannot but they’ll remain niche for a long time to come. Looking to build 5,000 units or more? Fairly straight forward as well, look into various injection molding techniques. If you had your DFM (Design for Manufacture) done right then this part was already taken into consideration for the limitations of injection molding like drafts, overhangs, wall thickness, and other factors. The vast majority of plastic products we come into contact with are made with injection molding and potentially the majority of consumer products in general. If you start to look for the clues in ejector pin witness marks and gates you’ll start to notice it everyone. Injection mold is an extremely cost effective way to product products at scale with very low unit costs. However the molds can be very expensive and cost anywhere from $10-100k to develop. So if you’re tight on funding or don’t need that kind of scale to start with then it might be the wrong approach. Building 100 to 1000 units can be the real issue. It’s often called the “Uncanny Valley” of manufacturing since it falls between prototyping and mass production techniques. For this you’ll have to look at some alternative techniques to get a production looking and performing device without getting invested into expensive injection molds. For this we like to use techniques like Urethane molds to make “medium” batch production with high quality finishes, good material properties, and reasonable unit costs. While it will never match the production scale and unit cost of injection molding, the cost savings compared to hard tooling can be a huge benefit. An additional advantage to this stage is edits are often much cheaper to incorporate than injection molds which likely need to have additional material welded in and remachined. We typically recommend this process as an effective way to scale a new product business, stay responsive to the market feedback received from units sold, and launch the product much quicker than injection molding. If you have any questions about soft tooling or Urethane molds feel free to reach out to me at email@example.com.