Posted November 3, 2020

The Advantages of Rapid Prototyping for the Defense Industry

Engineers working on a drone prototype, showcasing the advantages of rapid prototyping for the defense industry.

Defense contractors often experience scheduling problems, performance issues, and cost overruns because of inefficient processes. Each of those problems impacts the ability to reliably sell products and support systems to the Department of Defense, as well as erodes contractor relations and trust over time.

Improving the acquisition process for the defense industry and eliminating roadblocks that impede the development of systems is so important that it prompted Congress to pass the Weapons System Acquisition Reform Act of 2009. The act’s key objectives emphasized testing at the beginning of the program development cycle while also increasing the amount of testing. 

To meet these objectives, rapid prototyping has emerged as the best method for creating a near-complete system that allows functional testing in the early stages of development. What are the advantages of rapid prototyping, and how can defense contractors harness this method most effectively? Read on to learn more. 

Rapid Prototyping Processes for Defense Contractors

Rapid prototyping depends on the precision provided through 3D CAD software to quickly fabricate a physical part or model. High-fidelity rapid prototypes closely match the proposed product design and give design teams the ability to assess the form, fit, and function of a component without the added cost of finishing. 

As a defense contractor, you have several processes to choose from when selecting a rapid prototyping vendor for your components. These might include sheet metal fabrication, injection molding, or 3D printing. However, each of these processes presents drawbacks for defense component manufacturing. These range from long lead times associated with injection molding to brittle components created by 3D printing technology. 

CNC machining is another option that produces high-fidelity prototypes by automating precise tools that create a model from a solid block of material. The different types of cutting heads and milling bits used within CNC manufacturing can match the design tolerances and surface finish requirements of the defense industry, making it an ideal approach for the industry’s unique needs.

4 Advantages of Rapid Prototyping for Defense Projects

Approaching rapid prototyping by combining the high-fidelity automation of CNC manufacturing with the flexibility of an agile project management system allows defense contractors to provide accurate cost projections while meeting deadlines and reducing failures. Working with a qualified vendor also helps mitigate security risks specific to the industry. Here’s a closer look at those specific benefits.

Reduce Costs

No matter the size of the project, agile design teams always focus on achieving specific performance parameters while staying within budget. The ability to quickly move a project from conceptual to near-complete model via rapid prototyping allows teams to stay within budget boundaries while delivering the model on schedule. 

Cost reduction through reduced cycle times is particularly the case with CNC machining. Coupling 3D CAD design software with the accuracy of CNC reduces waste. A CNC machine can operate with minimal human input—and the opportunities for error—while producing uniform, precise parts.

Machine shops utilizing modern technology, software, and best practices streamline CNC machining production to the point where a single machinist can manage several machines simultaneously, often with different part designs assigned to each machine. Fixturing, such as tombstones, allow multiple instances of each part to be manufactured within a single machine at one time, without machinist intervention between each instance.

Lower Security Risk with Qualified Vendors

The risks posed by cyber vulnerabilities increase every day. Defense contractors achieve higher levels of cybersecurity when they can directly transfer data from 3D CAD design software to rapid prototyping equipment operated by International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR)-compliant vendors. ITAR restrictions keep design data, plans, diagrams, or photos in house. As a result, data remains confidential and secure against cyber attacks.

Decrease Time to Market

Within the defense industry, circumstances and requirements can change rapidly. Design teams can use rapid prototyping to show defense agency representatives how a design responds to their most current needs. Review teams can exercise the prototype and check the development to ensure that the design and operation provide the desired results. 

The ability to gain hands-on experience with the prototype gives review teams the advantage of guiding the development of the final product and significantly shortens the time between design and production. If the review team assessment discloses a problem, collaboration between review teams and design teams can produce new requirements. Design teams can move quickly to change a design and create a new prototype that matches the new requirements.

CNC machining processes that leverage advanced software and machines provide the flexibility needed to adjust to changing design parameters seen with rapid prototyping. This technology allows for the production of complex parts with equipment that automatically performs sequential operations, such as changing cutting heads during a manufacturing process. 

As such, designers and engineers can quickly evaluate form, fit, and function of a part thanks to a prototype that can be returned within five to six days of order. In fact, if you have a 12-month development cycle, you could run through 10 to 12 revisions of a prototype. This ability to rapidly test and revise ultimately allows for the final product to be brought to market more quickly.

Mitigate System Failures

System errors increase costs, introduce delays into processes, and weaken relations between you and your buyers. In some instances, errors occur because of poor capacity planning and an overreliance on equipment that cannot handle larger capacity demands. The lack of precision and mistakes in measurement not only delay the production process but may prevent products from reaching the marketplace on time and under budget. Errors also occur because of the lack of contingency plans that protect companies against delays.

Rapid prototyping offsets possible problems through constant feedback. If the potential for system failure occurs, feedback given by design teams, evaluators, and manufacturers assists with changing the type of equipment used or with correcting measurement errors. 

Increasing the amount of prototyping and testing also allows designers and manufacturers to anticipate failures and develop contingency plans. With data moving directly from 3D CAD software to a CNC machine, no opportunities for misreading a design plan or creating a part with the incorrect dimensions exist.

Rapid prototyping offsets possible problems through constant feedback. If the potential for system failure occurs, feedback given by design teams, evaluators, and manufacturers assists with changing the type of equipment used or with correcting measurement errors. 

Optimize Defense Innovation with CNC Rapid Prototyping

Ultimately, the advantages of rapid prototyping realized for the defense industry are rooted in design. Traditional design and development cycles limit prototyping and, as a result, the ability to offer new experimental concepts. With limited prototyping, design thinking has a much narrower scope because of the inability to test new or multiple concepts. Rapid prototyping offers the flexibility to produce different versions of a product and allows designers and engineers to see how a design change can impact performance.

While traditional design processes place user testing at the end of the process, rapid prototyping allows testing to occur early in the design process and prompts user testing throughout the process. Because of the emphasis on testing, design teams and manufacturers can repeatedly check functionality during each stage of design. The ability to produce more prototypes and to increase testing gives designers and engineers the freedom to innovate.

Plethora offers precision CNC machining that promotes creativity while reducing costs and risks, decreasing the time to market, and mitigating opportunities for system or component failures. To learn more about the advantages of rapid prototyping via CNC machining for defense projects, upload your design files to Quote My Part or speak with our experts today by calling 415-726-2256.

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The Plethora Team

The Plethora team is your go-to CNC manufacturer for hardware done right the first time. We have the tools and experience needed to create high quality custom parts quickly and with precision, whether you need a prototype or production run.

Topics: Defense, Rapid prototyping