How important is the Phillips prototyping operation to your companyís customer service effort?
Welch: We view our prototyping work as an integral part of how we do validation and verification to insure that a design is ready for production. And that holds true no matter when we come into the process, whether it is for design assistance or prototyping services to generate models or tooling. One of our major goals is to ask the right questions as early as possible. For example, what are the parts intended to do? That helps us in working with the customer to determine the right options to match their timing and budget needs. It could be models, rapid prototypes or more finished prototypes that will closely resemble the end product.
What are the key preproduction services that you offer the customer?
Welch: We can literally start at the design on a napkin stage, where our engineers and industrial designers help the customers with very early concepts for a design. Starting with those sketches, we can through brainstorming sessions with the company and help solidify the direction of the design, including generating some initial CAD geometry. Once the customer company decides what kind of style and feel is needed for the product, our design team can get more involved, creating a more refined 3D-CAD data base, which is later used to generate rapid prototypes, as well as tooling for production.
So Phillips is prepared to help the customer develop both prototype models of the part, as well as prototype molds?
Welch: Correct. If you want to break it down into our three basic services, we offer concept development through out industrial design services, engineering design to generate the 3D CAD data base and then prototype models and prototype tooling. The models we build from this data base can take many forms Ė foam, or plastic prototypes from stereolithography (SLA) or 3D printers.
What kind of materials do you typically use for prototype tooling?
Welch: Again, it depends on the ultimate use for the part. We could use aluminum or a P-20 grade steel. But if a customer wants prototype tooling that will behave like production tooling, we will choose a hardened steel for the prototype molds.
How many units do you typically produce with this prototype tooling?
Welch: It can range anywhere from a few hundred parts to several thousand.
And from there, do most of your customers retain your services for building the production tooling and for volume
production of the part?
Welch: Thatís our preferred business model, and the customers who follow this route get the full benefit of our knowledge from the very start. What we really bring to the table from our experience that goes all the way back to 1964 is the element of designing parts that not only have high quality but that can be produced efficiently and cost effectively.
Phillips describes its prototyping philosophy as one that has ďno limits.Ē In practice, what does that mean to your customers?
Welch: It boils down to meeting what each particular customer needs. For a customer that needs a very small quantity of parts, we might build a few foam models. Or it could be FDM (fused deposition modeling) sample parts from an SLA system or even machined models. But if a customer needs 100 parts produced from a spec resin in order to do mechanical testing, we can build an aluminum tool in a couple weeks. And we can assemble those parts to check the fit and build samples for initial verification testing. Then, of course, as the design progresses, we can design and build a tool that more closely represents the production process with cooling lines, gate locations and venting. All this helps us learn what we need to know about a part before we build high cavitation tools for volume production. We have a full suite of services, and the real beauty of Phillips is that a customer can enter our value stream at any point in the development process. For example, we can help with early design concepts, as noted earlier, or we can work with a design firm that the customer chooses.And a lot of customers come to us at the prototype stage because they have their own in-house design centers.
Are you finding that more of your customers bring you rapid prototypes that they have generated through a 3D printing or SLA process?
Welch: Yes. The 3D printers are helpful, but what you donít get are surface finishes that are as good as what you will get from a prototype tool. Nor do you get the speeds and cycle times that allow you to produce a volume of parts. Finally, you are giving something up in mechanical properties. Parts made from these rapid prototype machines typically have mechanical properties that are only 60% of what you get from injected-molded parts. But we donít view use of rapid prototype equipment as competition. Rather, we see it as something that complements the design verification process. The point is to get us involved early in evaluating these prototypes for manufacturability.
How do Phillipsí prototyping services differ from other options that the customer might see in the marketplace today?
Welch:There are some good firms out there that specialize only in generating rapid prototypes for customers. But the shortcoming here is that you canít transfer as much knowledge to the molder that will do the volume production. So you may end up making design changes much later, either to the part or the production tooling, to address design for manufacturability issues. That doesnít happen with us. We are asking those DFM questions from the very start. And compared to other injection molders, Phillips is unusual because of our extensive design and prototyping services, and our teams in those areas are very careful to keep the information flowing to our production plants. With many injection molders, you frequently have a case where there is competition over using production machines to make prototypes. Phillips has a design and development center in Hudson, WI. With 11 molding machines, this center is entirely devoted to prototype parts and prototype tooling.
What advice do you give to customers as they consider the many prototyping services available through Phillips?
Welch: First, they need to know what they want from prototypes so that we can take them in the right direction. What will you do with a part and how many will you need to make over the life of the program? And by all means, take advantage of our expertise in the area of design for manufacturability. The earlier we can get involved, the more time and money we can save our customers.