Soft Tool Prototyping

If you are interested in creating a sheet metal product, then you will start to hear a lot about soft tool prototyping. Why is creating a prototype so important, especially in the sheet metal manufacturing process?

About Prototypes

The development of a successful product usually starts with the production and testing of a prototype model. A prototype is required as a first step in the manufacturing process.

Prototypes can be made of many different materials. Engineers and inventors use prototypes as an opportunity to carry out form, fit, and functionality testing. The initial design intent of a new product can be proven with these tests.

The prototype phase is a critical step before moving to mass production of a product.

Sheet metal prototypes are required for the following industries:

  • Robotics
  • Appliances
  • Transportation
  • Green Technologies
  • Electronics
  • Medical Devices

Sheet metal is one of the most common materials in manufacturing. Sheet metal is used to make countless products throughout the world. Producing prototypes may include a variety of processes like punching, forming and bending. A flat sheet metal pattern can be produced on a laser, EDM, or waterjet machine.

Soft Tool Prototyping

The tooling used for prototype development is often referred to as “Soft Tooling”. Soft tooling can be used in a brake press, arbor press or bench vice.

Many important insights are gained by making prototypes with soft tooling. Some of these insights include forming methods, flat patterns, tolerances, and how certain types of materials react.

By making prototypes with this method of manufacturing, it is beneficial to both the design engineer or inventor and the manufacturing company.

Forming a sheet metal prototype in a brake press

Forming a Sheet Metal Prototype in a Brake Press

Soft tool short run prototyping offers a variety of advantages:

  • More flexibility in design changes before mass production
  • Lower initial tooling costs
  • Useful for presentations
  • Discover design engineering problems early
  • Significantly shorter lead times than mass production tooling

The Next Step: Manufacturing

Once a product has been proven by the prototype process, design engineers have to decide the next step in manufacturing. Depending on the quantity and dimensional accuracy of the parts to be produced, a sheet metal stamping tool might be the next step.

Labeled Diagram of a typical stamping press

Typical Stamping Press

Stamping tools run in a press, and stamping presses come in various sizes that are generally rated by tonnage. The lower half of a tool is mounted to the bolster plate in a press. The upper half of the tool is attached to the ram.

An example of progressive metal stamping products are parts for a beverage can.

The lid and assembly is made in one progressive stamping process and the pull tab is made separately in another process. Then the pull tab is simultaneously fed at a right angle into the lid & assembly process.

Stamping tools are expensive to build. A stamping tool is usually designed by a manufacturing engineer.

The tool is produced and assembled by a Toolmaker. Tool and Die makers are skilled craftsmen who work for a manufacturing company.

Photo of a 15 station progressive sheet metal stamping tool

Progressive 15 station sheet metal stamping tool

Sometimes a stamping tool is referred to as a “hard” tool. Because of the time and money invested in a stamping tool, it is very important to verify that a part or product will work as intended.

The best way to accomplish this is my making prototypes. Sheet metal manufacturing companies use highly sophisticated equipment and methods. A sheet metal job shop produces products for a large customer base.