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The Ultimate Guide to Sheet Metal Prototype Fabrication

The Ultimate Guide to Sheet Metal Prototype Fabrication

Before fabricating sheet metal parts, you need a prototype.

For that reason, this guide will take you through the fundamental aspects of fabricating sheet metal part prototypes.

From definition, techniques, benefits, to choice of materials – this guide gives you a clear picture of what you must pay attention to.

Let’s dive right in:

What Is Fabricating Sheet Metal Prototype?

Prototyping in sheet metal fabrication is a process where you make a model or sample of the final sheet metal part. That is, these are the first sheet metal parts or components you will make before mass production begins.

Therefore, the prototype and the final sheet metal product have the same features.

Maybe, you are wondering why this is important – I will explain shortly.

Sheet Metal Prototype
Sheet Metal Prototype

Advantages Of Sheet Metal Prototype Fabrication

Any serious sheet metal fabrication process starts from prototype development. There are many reasons why you should take metal prototyping seriously:

  1. Allows sheet metal fabricators to control quality – you can test the fit and functionality of the product. Of course, you will test the sheet metal part against the theoretical or design calculations.
  2. You can verify the design before the actual sheet metal fabrication starts
  3. It allows you to handle tangible product before actual production – through this, you can get reviews about the product then make necessary adjustments.
  4. It helps in fixing errors and possible malfunctions
  5. By developing prototype, you will eliminate all assumptions you had during the design phase
  6. It makes transitioning to actual and mass production easier.

Limitations Of Sheet Metal Prototypes

Even as you handle sheet metal prototype fabrication, you will deal with some challenges such as:

  1. Precision prototype sheet metal fabrication can be involving – remember, the prototype will be your first “template”. That is, you don’t have any tangible products to compare. All you have is a technical drawing and theoretical values.
  2. Fabrication process may be slow – You will configure the machine or process to meet your new design and configurations which may take time.
  3. Cost may be high – Everything at this stage is a “trial”. Therefore, if you are not careful, the cost may be high.

Sheet Metal Prototyping Methods

Over the years, there has been significant developments when fabricating sheet metal prototypes. In fact, modern technologies make the entire process faster, simple and cost effective.

Remember, any sheet metal prototype fabrication technique you choose will depend on the final product. Let’s explore some of the most common options:

3D Printing

3D Printing
3D Printing

Although the 3D printing metal offer fast and cost effective prototyping option, it may not be suitable for heat and stress testing processes. In this step, you will use a 3D printer.

Standard Metal Fabrication Methods

Ideally, it involves:

  • Cutting sheet metal
  • Forming sheet metal
  • Assembling sheet metal
  • Add suitable surface finish on final product

Remember, there are many techniques you can use in each step.

Take for instance:

  • Sheet metal cutting – you can use laser cutter, saw, Waterjet, plasma cutter, etc.
  • Sheet metal forming – it involves shaping sheet metal to suitable design by coining, bending, etc.
  • Assembling sheet metal parts – welding, riveting, bolt and nuts are effective techniques
  • Add additional features where necessary such as handles, slots, etc.
  • Apply all necessary surfaces – you can paint, anodize, buffing, plating or polish surface
Laser Cutting Sheet Metal
Laser Cutting Sheet Metal

Whether you use 3D printing or normal sheet metal fabrication, you must conduct rigorous test. This will ascertain quality of sheet metal part during metal prototyping.

Sheet Metal Prototyping Materials

In most cases, you can use the same material as the final sheet metal part. For instance, if the final part will be stainless steel, then use stainless steel to make prototype.

You can fabricate any of these sheet metals:

  • Stainless steel
  • Titanium
  • Aluminum
  • Copper
  • Magnesium
  • Galvanized steel
  • Brass, etc.

However, you must make rational decision when fabricating precious, rare or very expensive materials. In such situations, you can make the prototype using plastic or cheaper alternative.

Even so, you must be cautious when testing parts and components.

Best Design Practices When Fabricating Sheet Metal Prototype

Although every sheet metal prototype may have unique rules and specifications, some design rules will guarantee success.

For instance, the following measures are critical in prototype fabrication for metals:

  • Choose the right sheet metal thickness or gauge
  • Know sheet metal properties from where you can choose the best sheet metal prototyping technology
  • Work with tighter tolerance for parts which are critical to functionality of the final product. In most cases, tighter tolerances implies high sheet metal fabrication cost. Again, the tolerance will vary depending on the sheet metal part.
  • Keep the design simple since it will be easier to fabricate and reduce cost
  • For sheet metal bending, the radius should be equal to or greater than sheet metal thickness

More important, let a reputable sheet metal fabricator handle your prototyping needs, it helps reduce unnecessary costs. If possible, you can outsource the metal prototyping process.

Design For Manufacturability (DFM) In Sheet Metal Prototypes

DFM
DFM

DFM plays an integral role in fabricating sheet metal prototypes. Ideally, it will help you save time and money in both prototyping and actual sheet metal fabrication process.

Some fundamental aspects in sheet metal fabrication DFM are:

  • DFM will help you select the best sheet metal material for your application
  • It will help you minimize part number
  • Adopting simple sheet metal fabrication technique for the prototypes
  • Choose simple and effective sheet metal assembly processes
  • Helps in evaluating thickness of sheet metal prototype parts based on:

                      i. Hole size and location in case these design has any

                     ii. Punch to die clearance

                     iii. Collars and coining

                     iv. Grain structure of sheet metal

                     v. Bend relief and edges

                    vi. Corners and points

                    vii. Wall thickness

In nutshell, even before you start sheet metal prototype design and fabrication, DFM is always critical.

Applications Of Sheet Metal Prototyping

Sheet metal fabricators in virtually all industries use prototyping process. Therefore, whether you are in:

  1. Home appliance industry
  2. Aerospace industry
  3. Medical industry
  4. Automotive industry
  5. Architectural industry, etc.

It is advisable to make a prototype before the actual sheet metal fabrication process begins.

Conclusion

In short, sheet metal prototype fabrication is an important stem you cannot ignore. It will help you save time, assess quality and plan for speedy sheet metal fabrication process.

At KDMFAB, we will help you with all your sheet metal prototyping processes

More Resources:

Custom Sheet Metal Fabrication – Source: KDMSTEEL

Metal 3D Printing – Source: HUBS

Sheet Metal Laser Cutting – Source: KDMFAB

Precision Sheet Metal Fabrication – Source: KDMFAB

Sheet Metal Bending – Source: KDMFAB

Sheet Metal Finishing – Source: KDMFAB

DFM – Source: Wikipedia

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