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From Sketch to Prototype: Using Laser Cutting to Bring Your Ideas to Life
At virtually every turn in the product development process, prototyping is critical to success. From “benchtop” mockups to visual mockups, subsystem prototypes, working prototypes, alpha prototypes, beta prototypes, testing prototypes…the list of potential prototypes is endless! We’ve even made prototypes of prototypes! At any point in the design process where there are unknowns, there is a prototype to help make solutions tangible.
Learning how and when to prototype will allow your team to rapidly iterate through ideas and enable continuous improvement through learning and testing. Prototypes allow for early failures that are both quick and inexpensive and are essential to ensure the end-product meets the form, fit, and function requirements. When making prototypes it is often cost prohibitive to commit to investment heavy manufacturing processes such as injection molding or stamping. Instead, tooling-free prototyping such as 3D printing or laser cutting is much more effective both from a cost and time perspective. As these prototypes mature (necessitating larger production volumes and greater accuracy), prototyping technologies can scale accordingly, perhaps transitioning to vacuum casting, machining, or higher fidelity 3D printing technologies.
At NeuronicWorks, one of our favourite prototyping technologies is laser cutting. Laser cutting involves using a high powered (in our case 155W) laser to cut or engrave 2D profiles into a base material. As there is no tooling required, and the setup time is minimal, laser cutting is low cost, fast, and extremely accurate, making it perfect for prototyping and low volume production. Often, we will make quick prototypes out of cardboard in seconds, make quick changes and have a second iteration in minutes. When the designer is satisfied with the design, they can move to an engineering material confident that the design is sound. This rapid iteration is powerful because it encourages the designer to try new ideas and iterate extensively leading to more thoughtful and robust designs for little cost and time.
Laser Cutting Materials
Though laser cutting is extremely versatile not all materials are suitable for laser processes either due to the cut quality, or the fact that it releases harmful vapours during cutting. Our most common materials are below:
Plastics are one of the most common laser processed materials (either cut or engraved), and the most common plastic we use is Acrylic (sometimes called Plexiglass). We’ve also had success cutting ABS, PE, Delrin, and more.
Wood is a fantastic prototyping material that is commonly used when low cost and strength is needed, often it can be used to mockup structures that will become metal in the real product (with scaled loading). Plywoods are the most common due to their cost and strength though we can also cut many hardwoods and veneers.
Paper can be easily cut with the laser cutter; however, care must be taken as some paper is too thin to be cut nicely without marking. Thicker cardstock is great for both cutting and laser engraving, while as mentioned before cardboard (corrugated) is amazing for prototypes due to its cost, cut speed, and strength.
Foams and rubbers are some of our most commonly cut prototype and low volume production parts as they lend themselves well to 2D shapes. We cut lots of foam for inserts and shipping materials, both for prototyping and testing, but also as a tooling-free low volume production method. Laser cut rubbers also make excellent gasket and sealing features. Both foams and rubbers are complex materials so care must be taken to ensure that they can be cut safely, our team has the experience to guide you in material selection.
Leathers and fabrics are very frequently cut when developing fashion products or wearables and many can be cut or engraved. Particularly leather is an excellent material for both engraving and cutting, while both organic (cotton, wool, etc.) and non-organic (nylon, and polyester, etc.) can be laser cut.
Though we outlined some of our more common materials, many materials can be cut or engraved. If you have a material or application in mind reach out to us and our engineering team can help you.
Prototyping and Beyond
Though we focused on laser cutting for prototyping, one of the advantages of laser cutting/engraving is that it scales extremely well for low-mid volume production. The same files that were used for prototyping can be reused for larger batch orders of parts during NPI and production when you may not want to invest in tooling or are waiting for tooling to be created. Additionally, because parts can be made of engineering plastics, production ready jigs and fixtures can be created with laser cut parts. Additionally, the laser can be used for part marking on metal plates to meet various compliance marking standards.
Laser cutting is a powerful, adaptable technology to develop ideas, validate designs, and support production. Its versatility can be harnessed to enable extremely rapid iteration and ensure the highest quality end products through development.