The correct (but largely unhelpful) answer is that a rapid prototype can cost anywhere between $100 and tens of thousands of dollars. The longer, but more helpful answer, involves looking at your application or concept in more detail and considering the different prototyping options available.
The cost advantages of rapid prototyping
The main reason product designers and engineers want a prototype in the first place is to reduce design risks that can lead to costly errors, for example, a design fault only discovered once a product has been mass manufactured can obviously be hugely expensive. Creating rapid prototypes with technologies like 3D printing can lower costs significantly as less machinery and fewer operatives are required, with less waste produced. However, simply deciding to rapid prototype is not enough to indicate costs, it’s important to look at the factors affecting the cost of prototyping too.
Factors affecting the cost of prototyping
Method of machining
Prototyping is achieved in a variety of ways, including CNC machining, 3D printing, and rapid tooling techniques, each with their own specific cost implications. For example, CNC machining, although the most cost-effective and high quality option for mass manufacturing of metal parts, is often more exorbitant for prototyping because of the high cost of tooling required. It can also take longer to machine a part, and the setup process is more involved. Also, as a subtractive form of manufacturing, CNC machining produces more waste.
Additive manufacturing techniques such as Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) or Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) produce less waste, and as the time taken to produce a prototype is shorter, the cost can work out less too.
‘Materials’ indicate not only what a prototype is made from, but also the resources required to make it. These are jigs, design plans, tools and other parts. The cost of these resources varies, for example, the resin needed for SLA printing, is around $50- $150 per liter and PLA (the thermoplastic filament used with FDM 3D printers) can be acquired for around $25 – $42 for a 750 g spool. You can also opt for ABS filament if a product needs to be tough but light, both ABS and PLA are considered to be cost-effective. It’s also wise to remember there are charges for extra finishes on products.
Detail, dimension and design
If a product is large in size or requires complex components, these factors will be reflected in the cost of a prototype, particularly if they are unlike any existing parts that can be worked from. Any unique customisation of a product will cost more than an ‘off- the-shelf’ design, even something as simple as the positioning of a button can lead to significant cost increases in rapid prototyping. Taking away or rethinking some of these features can dramatically decrease costs. A product may also need more sophisticated software input, for example, if it needs to interact with the web, again there will be price implications.
When it comes to labor, it’s important to remember there will be a whole production team involved in the manufacturing of a new product. This includes designers, software engineers, mechanical and electronic experts who are responsible for the drawings, computer programming and electrical schematics. Rates for these kinds of specialists vary greatly, from $100 – $320 an hour.
A balancing act
With so many variables, the key to costing rapid prototyping is to consider every element of a new concept. Is it necessary to have stronger material? Is it critical that all complexities are included? Resolve these considerations and you will have amore accurate picture of the real cost of rapid prototyping.