Choosing the Right Rapid Tooling Supplier


You know the drill, the project is going smoothly and is right on schedule when … the big cheese pops into your office with an “opportunity.” Apparently the marketing guys were at a trade show in Vegas and they saw the competition was going to introduce their version of your design in five months.  Problem is that your product is not going to be ready for six months. So, the obvious solution is to simply take two months out of the schedule. It’s just like a Dilbert cartoon.

In the old days, it was very difficult to speed up design projects which included multiple plastic parts simply because it was a labor intensive process to produce them.  Lead times of 6 months to a year were not unusual. Fortunately, injection mold building technology has come a long way in the past decade and lead times of days or weeks are not unusual, especially with prototype or bridge tooling technologies. 

However, speeding up the development process is a challenge in and of itself and the last thing you need to worry about is overcoming obstacles that could have been avoided altogether. Sure, you need plastic parts quickly, but simply inquiring about cost and lead-time may not produce the optimum results you need.  So, consider the following items when choosing a tooling supplier: 

Can the tooling supplier assist with the development of your design to help ensure the tooling is cost-effective and easily made?

Plastic is one of the most flexible, versatile, and amazing materials to design with, but there are many variables that must be considered to ensure success.  One of the most frustrating moments in plastic component development is realizing the design cannot be tooled or injection molded cost- effectively or at all.  Many tool suppliers employ tooling engineers that assist with designing the actual mold, but cannot help with improving your part design for manufacturability.  When sourcing injection mold makers, look to those that have fully integrated design and engineering support staffs that can assist plastic component optimization for both tooling and production.

Is the tooling/molding supplier able to produce parts in the material you plan to use for production and do they understand plastic resin specifications well enough to assist in material selection?

Today there are countless processes that will produce prototype parts very quickly and inexpensively. However, many of these prototyping processes do not produce parts in the same material or in the same way as injection molded parts. This often means that while these components work well for verifying form and fit, they may not work for functional or destructive testing. Look for a supplier that can work with the material you specify and can offer options if other material choices are needed. One of the true advantages of prototype injection mold tooling is that the parts you receive can be used for fit, finish, product testing, agency approval, and executive sign off.  What you see in your prototype should reflect what you will get in final production.

Can the supplier produce parts based on your original design or will they require you to change it in order to utilize their processes?

This is a very important question to ask potential suppliers before you send your design out for a quote. In the zeal to save time, it is often assumed that all rapid tooling methods are the same and will produce an “as designed” component.  However, some suppliers have very specific guidelines when quoting rapid tooling. Although the quote you receive may be cost-effective, you may have to invest valuable time redesigning your part and resending the data files in order to utilize a specific tooling process. Many design engineers have very specific reasons for the geometry of their parts and should not settle for compromises when sourcing rapid tooling. If the part design is important, make sure the supplier you choose can produce your parts “as designed” the first time.

How is quality control managed internally?

Quality control is essential in this fast paced, competitive world. Make sure the supplier you choose has a quality process in place that encompasses everything from receiving the project to sending it out the door. Each step of the process should be documented; checks and balances should be in place so you get parts that are not only cost-effective but are of the highest quality. And remember, sacrificing quality in the interest of saving time is never a good idea. 


Rapid tooling should not only be about getting parts quickly, but about learning as much as possible about how the part can be quickly tooled and produced cost-effectively when it is time for mass production. When sourcing a rapid tooling partner, the best situation is to find a vendor that not only understands rapid tooling, but part design, material selection, optimization for production, and molding/manufacturing. Make sure to include your rapid tooling vendor as a member of your project team, especially if they understand the entire design and development cycle. It may not only save time and money getting ready for production, but in actual production, as well. 


Jason Andrews