How to Choose A Manufacturing Method For Low Volume Production
When developing a new product, the leap from design to production is one of the biggest challenges to overcome. With traditional manufacturing methods, even the simplest parts can require weeks of time and thousands of dollars in tooling costs. These costs may be prohibitive for small scale production of 100-1000 parts.
Fortunately, there are a number of options available which are more appropriate for smaller scale production, including:
Additive manufacturing / 3D printing: parts are created by fusing thin layers of plastic together.
Urethane casting: parts are created from a soft mold, which is created using liquid silicone which cures around a master object
Aluminum tool injection molding: Parts are created in the same way as traditional injection molding, but tooling is made with aluminum, which is easier to machine.
Per-part production costs for these methods are more expensive than traditional manufacturing methods, but the total cost and time investment for a small-scale production run are significantly lower. Each of these methods is best for different applications:
3D printing is best when cost and timeline are the most important factors. It is not suitable for parts with specific material or strength requirements, or that require a smooth surface finish. However, if a part can be produced suitably using 3D printing, it is often the best option in terms of cost, timeframe, and ease of revision for low volume production runs.
Urethane casting uses a soft mold to produce parts, which is much easier to create than aluminum or steel tooling. However, these molds cannot be used with many materials and typically can only last long enough to produce 75-100 parts at most before the mold wears out.
Aluminum tool injection molding costs less than traditional steel tooling to create, but can be expensive and slow. When quality or material are critical in part production, it is the best option.
Use this table to help you compare the available options and decide which is best for your application. If you want to learn more, we’d love to discuss your project with you. Even if it isn’t a good fit for 3D printing, we’re happy to help you choose the right path forward.
|3D Printing||Urethane Casting||Aluminum Tool Injection Molding|
|Upfront Tooling Costs||None||Low cost $300 - $1000||High cost $500-$5000|
|Per-Part Costs||Moderate||Low, but mold can only be used for one production run||Very low. Molds can be used for multiple production runs.|
|Typical Quantity||1-100||50-200||1000 -10000|
|Production Timeline||2-5 days||1-2 weeks||3-5+ weeks|
|Part Strength||Moderate. Not suitable for high stress applications.||Moderate. Limited material options.||Best. Many material options.|
|Part Geometry and Detail||Moderate detail. Not suitable where a smooth surface finish is required.||Better detail. Versatile thickness and geometry.||Most detailed. Requires thin, uniform walls and drafts for mold removal.|
|Ease of Part Design Iteration||Very easy. New iterations can be seamlessly integrated mid-production.||Moderate. Molds are used for one run and need to be rebuilt for every run of 5-75 parts.||Difficult. In most cases new tooling must be created at the same upfront cost.|