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The Protomold Story, as told by founder and CTO Larry Lukis
Back in 1985, I was one of the founders of a $100 million company that was a major innovative force in desktop publishing and high quality laser & ink jet printing. In case you're curious (or better yet, in the market for the best large format color printer money can buy), check out this link: www.ColorSpan.com
In the 2D Desktop Publishing and Printing world, I got used to the idea that once a page was designed on the computer, you just press "Print" and out comes your end product. I knew it wouldn't be that easy in the 3D world, but at the time, I didn't know what I didn't know.
Initially, we just designed and built the electronics and computer controls for other people's printers. Later we began designing our own printer mechanisms and got into designing plastic parts with 3D solid modeling CAD software.
That's when I was rudely awakened to the realities of the injection mold tooling world. I was shocked to learn that it takes multiple weeks and tens of thousands of dollars to get tooling for injection molded plastic parts. Just goes to show you how naive a computer geek can be!
It didn't take us long to figure out that Rapid Prototyping was going to become a key component of our R&D process. Well yeah, it became a key component alright, but it wasn't much longer that we started to appreciate the shortcomings of the various rapid prototyping technologies for our application.
SLA was fairly accurate, but fragile as all get out. Generally it was pretty much useless for actually testing the functionality of a part in one of our printers.
FDM makes fairly sturdy ABS parts, but always had too much stair-stepping for our purposes.
SLS came the closest to fulfilling our needs as it was usually strong enough. Accuracy wasn't great, but with some effort, we could usually work around that.
LOM never really entered the picture for us. Probably best for larger parts than we got into.
Of course, what we really wanted was real injection molded prototype parts in Nylon, or Delrin, or Lexan or whatever we intended to use for the production parts. The problem was, it took several WEEKS to get that, not to mention the cost. I don't know about your organization, but waiting several weeks to try out a part was never an option for us.
We had two problems with injection mold tooling. The first was the long wait. It just didn't fit into our culture, never mind the cash flow and lost opportunity costs of not shipping a product while waiting for production tooling.
Second, our volume requirements were quite low by conventional production injection molding standards. Printers of this caliber are built in the 100's rather than the tens of thousands. So typically only hundreds of parts per month were required. Injection molders generally make their money on large volume, and it's hard to get priority treatment when you're really small potatoes for your suppliers.
Invariably, we would absolutely positively have to ship some units before production tooling was ready. Sometimes it would be possible to use machined parts in place of molded, but more often we would use urethane parts cast in RTV tooling, which was itself cast from an SLA master.
To put it mildly, this was almost always an unsatisfactory experience. Warping and dimensional problems are chronic, as are surface finish and cosmetic blemish problems. Then there's the issue that the molds only last for a handful of parts, and they still cost over a thousand bucks plus the cost of SLA masters.
What Protomold is About
We don't aspire to address true high volume production tooling. We've learned enough to know that these tools can be works of art, and we definitely don't do art. When a tool is going to make a million parts, what's it worth if the tool can run a cycle every 12 seconds instead of 15? Plenty! That's why a lot of high tech design effort goes into these molds, and that's the way it should be.
But for prototype and low to moderate volume tooling, there is a lot of room for drastically reducing both lead time and cost. Ballpark: we can deliver real injection molded parts as quickly as the next business day and at mold prices starting at $1,495.
Here's how: We've totally automated the process of making injection mold tooling. As long as your part has a geometry that can be machined, and the mold has four or less side actions, we can injection mold it. We work with advanced aluminum alloys and high-speed CNC machining; no steel and none of the costly and time consuming custom engineering that normally goes into the development of injection mold tooling.
Another great thing about it - after you've tested and approved your prototype parts during the product development process, you immediately have tooling available to build those 50, or 500, or 5,000 parts for marketing or pilot production. That's one of the advantages you have when you "Prototype with Protomold."
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