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Prototype tooling is a way of creating a prototype from a design or three-dimensional (3D) model; in many regards, it is the same as regular tooling. Traditional tooling techniques usually are used with prototype tooling, but 3D printing also can be used to form the prototype for some needs. While this is similar to regular tooling, there are differences in how the prototype is put together and its overall functionality. The tooling company is producing a small number of copies, so the per-copy rate is much higher than with regular tooling.
Tooling is a method of working with materials in which the materials are cut and shaped to make a specific form. For example, to make a screw, a chunk of metal is made into a cylinder and then a spiral is cut into the bottom half of the metal. In most regards, this is what prototype tooling is; the materials needed for the prototype are cut and shaped to make a prototype copy. Aside from functionality issues, another major difference between prototype and regular tooling is the output amount, because only a limited number of copies are made for the prototype.
While traditional tooling commonly is used for prototype tooling, 3D printers also can be used for some prototypes. Simple functionality may be replicated with this method, but advanced functionality is difficult. This is more like a mold that is replicated from a 3D model; this means 3D printing is a useful tooling technique when plastic is being used.
There are some differences between prototype tooling and regular tooling that may keep a prototype from being used safely and properly. If the prototype is supposed to be functional, with moving parts, then this usually will be downplayed to make the prototype easier and faster to tool. This means the functional parts may not be included, or they may be simplified so the functions can briefly be displayed to interested buyers. The parts usually are not fastened as securely, so the prototype may not be safe for extended use.
Regular tooling often is expensive, but because there are so many copies being made at once, the per-copy rate usually is relatively affordable. It is harder to use the tooling machines for a short run, especially if the prototype tooling is unlike any other part, so the per-copy rate often is much higher. This means the inventor may have to pay a lot of money to get the prototype properly tooled, even if the prototype is similar to existing products.
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