Prototype Projects helps designers achieve their goals by combining advanced technologies with consultative support
For over 35 years Prototype Projects has helped its clients to get the most out of rapid prototyping. The Hertfordshire-based company offers an integrated design-to production service that includes 3D printing, CNC machining, vacuum casting, finishing, and additive manufacturing of production parts. “We are a prototype service bureau,” says managing director Justin Pringle. “We are here to assist
companies in taking products from the computer screen to the real world through the variety of
processes we have available.”
The opening of a new 3D printing suite in 2016 has provided Prototype Projects the extra capacity to help the company grow its sales figures throughout 2017. Additionally, a separate room dedicated to medical device development has proven especially popular.
One might question the relevance of a bureau service given the affordability and apparent ubiquity of desktop 3D printers. Why would consultancies or design studios use a rapid prototyping bureau when they can 3D print a part in-house? Whilst access to 3D printing is certainly broader than in years gone by, people can underestimate the complexity of the process.
There is no single 3D printing technique that is suitable for all prototyping requirements. Certain companies that have invested in a mid to lower end 3D printer for in-house use may realise they cannot
achieve the quality of part that a specialist bureau is equipped to deliver. Prototype Projects offers clients access to a range of high-end 3D printing equipment (including SLA, SLS, Polyjet, and FDM machines) as well as the benefit of its expertise in selecting the most appropriate process for a given job.
“A client may come to us and say that they want something 3D printed. That’s great – but what process?” asks Pringle. “We will guide them according to what they want the prototype to do. Perhaps you will need two processes to test the part in different ways. We have the experience and our clients fid that very valuable.”
Prototype Projects has 12 printers in total running various processes and materials. There is the possibility to combine technologies to create hybrid prototypes if particular properties are required by the client. Furthermore, a bureau can update its equipment to ensure clients have access to the most up-to-date machines. For smaller design businesses the capital expenditure of regularly investing in new machines and the associated software would be prohibitive. Indeed, in the final quarter of 2017 Prototype Projects replaced four existing SLA machines with new models from 3D Systems. “SLA is the
gold standard in 3D printing and is still the most in-demand process,” comments Pringle. “That’s why we decided to change our old machines and replace them with the newest technology which should see us through for another ten to fifteen years.”
In addition to guidance in choosing the most appropriate process, Prototype Projects’ clients also value speed of turnaround of job. With multiple machines in its facility, Prototype Projects has the capacity to run multiple jobs concurrently, overnight if necessary, to ensure parts are ready for overnight dispatch with no production bottlenecks. “We understand the importance of time. Fundamentally that’s what we are here for: to make prototypes as quickly as possible,” says Pringle. “The quicker you can get a product to market, the quicker you are making money.”
Whilst it is 3D printing that has enjoyed the media spotlight in recent years, the so-called ‘more traditional’ prototyping processes still have a very significant role and clients are wise to not
disregard the advantages of vacuum casting or CNC machining. “Even with the advent of 3D
printing with metals, you can’t expect to produce the same parts as a CNC machine,” adds Pringle.
“CNC is still very strong, it accounts for 20 per cent of our business. It’s a process that’s as old as
the hills but is still very valid.”
Vacuum casting, meanwhile, accounts for a further 20 per cent of Prototype Projects’ work. It is a particularly useful technique for clients who are looking for a model with an aesthetic more
representative of an injection moulded part. Clients seeking 20 or 30 parts of similar colour
and material to match a corporate specification or for near-market consumer research will often find
vacuum casting the best fit for their requirement.
A great deal of Prototype Projects’ 2017 work was with design consultancies involved in new product development and as such is bound by confidentiality agreements. Indeed, protecting the privacy and security of a project is fundamental to the company’s way of doing business. “We sign confidentiality agreements with people every day,” says Pringle. “With the speed that things get to market, clients cannot afford to have someone copy their idea.”
The consultancies and in-house design studios that use Prototype Projects’ services will typically have at least some experience of rapid prototyping technologies. However, for some clients the world of 3D printing is utterly new. One such example is Nana’s Manners – an innovative range of cutlery designed to encourage children to hold a knife and fork properly. The concept was created by entrepreneur Kathryn Baldrey-Chourio; she had limited experience in product development and Prototype Projects
was able to introduce her to a design consultancy who developed CAD models of the cutlery which were then rapid prototyped – the ergonomic handles 3D printed, and the metal parts CNC machined. Kathryn used the prototypes to demonstrate the product and build interest around her brand at trade shows. She even managed to impress the business moguls on the BBC programme Dragons’ Den to the tune of a £50,000 investment from Touker Suleyman.
With 37 years of industry experience behind the company, Prototype Projects has established an enviable reputation as a trusted and efficient partner. As the word ‘rapid’ in rapid prototyping might suggest, this is an industry in which speed is critical. Prototype Projects prides itself on delivering swift quotes for work – typically responding to an enquiry within three hours – and offers clients a popular express service which guarantees next day dispatch of the part.
Article originally printed in the New Design Yearbook. It has been reproduced here with permission from New Design Magazine.