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Choosing a CNC Machining Partner for the Prototype Phase

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    There are a few questions to ask yourself in order to properly determine what kind of CNC machining manufacturing partner you’ll need for the prototyping phase of your component. Because CNC Machining partners can be very different, and have different strengths, you’ll want to find a partner who’s strengths cater to your project needs.

    What Kind of Part Do You Need CNC Machined?

    Let’s start off with the basics. The first question you need to answer is what type of part you are looking to have machined. Different types of CNC machining manufacturers will be a fit for different project types.

    Simple Parts

    Small, simple, repeatable parts rarely need much more than the push of a button to submit an order for success. If you have a relatively simple machined part, you are likely safe with a number of different manufacturers, so long as they support small enough volumes for the prototyping phase. 

    Complex Parts

    On the other hand, complex parts, machined RF shields, or metal housings that will require the application of additional manufacturing processes for assembly are an entirely different animal. You’ll want to find a partner who has experience in machining the types of parts you are making.

    In these instances, you’ll want to find specialists rather than generalists. Look for appropriate quality and security certifications, a team with plenty of engineers on staff, and the willingness to work through an iterative prototyping process with you.

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    What material do you need to use?

    By and large, the most common types of housing we see are designed from 6061 aluminum. Most machining partners will be able to handle aluminum without an issue. 

    Some parts may require specialized materials or plastics. For instance, if you’re working with magnesium, you’ll need a CNC machining partner who can handle the fire hazards that come up during the machining process.

    Just make sure the CNC machining manufacturing partner you are looking to work with is able to work with the materials you need, and has access to suppliers that provide them.

    What are Your Tolerance Requirements?

    Another important factor to consider is the type of tolerances you need to maintain. For applications like aerospace, communications, or medical devices, tolerances are often very stringent. In cases like this you’ll want to ensure that you have chosen a CNC machining manufacturing partner that has both the skill and equipment to maintain your tolerance requirements.

    A good indicator is to ask what kind of quality measurement technology and software they have in their facilities. Look for investment in a Zeiss or Keyence CMM for indicators that their quality management processes are robust enough to meet your needs.

    Are There Concurrent Manufacturing Processes Which will be Run on the CNC Machined Part?

    If you're looking to machine metal housing for an RF shield, electronic part, or a part which requires the application of a gasket, you’ll need to look beyond just CNC machining capabilities. Traditionally, when OEMs have approached parts like this, they’ve accepted the fact that they have to work with multiple different manufacturing partners or vendors to achieve a finished component.

    This process is fraught with challenges, miscommunications, and wasted time. There are plenty of CNC machining partners who do more than just machining. In the instances where your component requires the application of additional processes, look for a partner who can do as many of those processes concurrently as possible.

    This is especially important with the application of platings and coatings and the dispensing of form-in-place gaskets. Both of these manufacturing processes depend on the CNC machined part being completed perfectly in order to work.

    In these instances, having a single vendor who understands both the CNC machining and secondary manufacturing process will ensure that the part is completed right the first time (saving valuable time for you). It will also allow them to give you valuable feedback on the design of your CNC machined housing before it causes problems with a concurrent process. 

    Vendors who only have expertise in CNC machining will miss these important opportunities to improve your prototype and speed up the process.

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    Do You Have Complex Geometries or Strict Flatness Requirements?

    The complexity of your part will play a huge part in determining which CNC machining partner you choose to complete it. Complex geometries and design features in multiple planes requires more advanced technology to produce.

    You’ll want to ensure that your chosen partner has the machinery (like a 5-Axis Milling Machine) to complete these kinds of requests. In addition, you’ll want a team that has the engineering chops to provide you with a Design for Manufacturability (DFM) service on such complex designs.

    How Fast Do You Need the Parts?

    Many CNC machining partners are not well suited to do prototype work simply because it takes them so long to turn parts around. When you are in a prototyping phase, you want parts fast so you can begin testing as soon as possible. 

    You’ll want to look for a partner who actively seeks prototype work, and where you have direct access to their engineering team in order to quickly iterate on design.

    Do You Need Design Feedback?

    This question goes hand-in-hand with the complexity of your design. Complex designs, while you may not realize it, always benefit from a good review and strategic DFM feedback. Many design engineers know how to design the part for their needs, but may not be an expert in reviewing that design for manufacturability, which is where your CNC machining partner should come in.

    Additionally, when you are in the prototype phase, you may be willing to accept some sacrifices on things like tolerances in an effort to get a part back faster for testing. Having a partner who can work with you, and understand how to return a part that meets your immediate needs to you faster can make a huge difference in your speed to market.

    Simple designs likely won’t need much in the way of design feedback.

    Related: Design Considerations for Machined Parts: 13 Design Features That Can Reduce Your Lead Times and Costs for Machined Parts

    Final Thoughts

    Choosing the right CNC manufacturing partner for the prototype phase of your project really boils down to the complexity of your part.

    For simple parts that don’t have strict tolerance requirements, going with a supplier that meets your volume requirements is just about all you have to consider.

    For complex parts, with concurrent manufacturing processes, you’ll need to do some research into potential CNC machining partners to find the right one. Look for:

    • Vertical integration
    • Appropriate quality management processes
    • A stacked engineering team
    • Consultative design feedback

    Or, just consider Modus Advanced. Submit a design and see if we are a good fit for your complex CNC machined part.

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    Submit a design