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Cost of CNC Prototyping: A Cost Breakdown

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    One of the most important factors in choosing a CNC prototyping service is cost. While important, finding the right balance between low cost and high quality can be difficult. Therefore, there is a need to understand the cost of CNC prototyping.

    cost of cnc prototyping

    This article will break down the costs associated with CNC prototyping. It will show you different factors determining the cost of prototyping and what you can do to optimize the cost.

    The Real Cost of CNC Prototyping

    the real cost of cnc machining

    The question “Is CNC prototyping expensive?” is one of the gray areas in CNC machining. Information is abundant online about how much CNC prototyping cost. However, much of it is contradictory. While some claim CNC prototyping is the most cost-efficient process, some say it is the least. Believe us, we know how confusing it can get. However, the first thing to realize is that the cost of prototyping can vary widely. This depends on what material you are working with, what tolerances your part requires, and how complex the part design is. By understanding each factor that drives how much CNC prototyping cost, you can determine how much you should be paying and what a competitive CNC-based prototyping service should cost.

    Factors That Drive the Cost of CNC Prototyping

    what drives the cost of cnc prototyping?

    To know how much CNC prototyping cost, there is a need to know about several factors that are its cost drivers. These factors that affect the cost of CNC prototyping can be directly and indirectly involved. Below is an explanation of how both categories determine the cost of prototyping.

    Factors That Directly Determine the Cost of Prototyping

    These factors are integral to the CNC prototyping process as they do not vary from service to service, and they depend on your design plan. Therefore, they have a direct effect on the cost of prototyping. Below are the important factors that you should consider:

    · Design Complexity

    design complexity

    One of the factors that mostly determines how much CNC prototyping cost is the part design. If your prototype has a straightforward design with simple geometry, then the associated CNC prototyping cost will be significantly lower than one with a more complex structure. This is based on the simple fact that a simple geometry is faster to machine than a complex one.

    For example, if your prototype design integrates undercuts, many hole sizes, and a high level of detail, the machining time will be longer, and the CNC prototyping cost will be higher than a part that requires minimal cuts and milling.

    If the cost of prototyping is a key concern for your project, consider examining your design and evaluating whether certain design elements are necessary and if they can be simplified to reduce machining time.

    · Tolerances


    Another key factor that determines how much CNC prototyping cost is the tolerance associated with the part design. In other words: how precise your product or prototype must be.

    CNC machining is one of the most high-precision manufacturing processes that exist today. However, that does not necessarily mean your part always requires the highest degree of precision. The tighter the part tolerances, the higher the cost of prototyping. This is because of the added time it takes to achieve high levels of precision.

    According to a study by the University of Illinois, the cost of CNC machining can increase by double between a rough tolerance of ±0.030 and a standard tolerance of ±0.005. Are you looking at tolerances of ±0.001? The cost can increase by up to four times. Considering this, do not be alarmed if you receive a shocking quote if you’ve asked for the tightest tolerances possible. Chances are, if you are ordering a prototype, it may not need the highest tolerances, which will enable you to scale back the costs of production.

    · Material Choice

    material choice

    This should go without saying, but your choice of material will determine how much CNC prototyping cost. The cost of the raw material is often out of the hands of the CNC machining service. However, different global regions have different costs. For instance, rapid prototyping services in China often have access to cheaper raw materials, so they can often offer a lower CNC prototyping cost.

    As a general rule, plastic materials are cheaper than metal. However, that does not narrow down very much, as there are many plastic and metals to choose from. For prototyping, plastics are often the most common option due to cost. Among CNC prototyping plastics, ABS is one of the most cost-effective. POM, PC, PA, and PMMA are also common.

    Looking at metals, aluminum alloys are usually the most cost-effective, making them popular for prototyping applications. You can see RapidDirect’s full list of CNC machining materials here.

    It is also worth noting that it is not only the cost of the raw material that determines CNC prototyping cost. You also have to think about the machinability of the material. Less machinable materials take more time to process, which drives up the cost of prototyping.

    · Finishing Choice

    finishing choice

    The fourth major factor that determines how much CNC prototyping cost is the finishing you want to use. There are several post-processing options, and each has a different price tag. Fortunately, there is also the option for no post-processing (aka “as-machined” or “as-milled”), which is viable for prototyping applications on a strict budget.

    Finishing processes impart different characteristics for your prototype or final part. This includes aesthetic qualities like smoothness or gloss and functional properties like better durability. If a surface treatment is needed for your CNC prototype, minimize the cost of prototyping by choosing one rather than multiple finishes.

    Factors That Indirectly Determine the Cost of Prototyping

    In addition to the four factors mentioned above that determines cost of prototyping, there are a handful of factors that influence the cost of prototyping, though in less direct ways. These influencers also vary from service to service, so it may be worth discussing with your prototyping partner to understand their specific pricing model.

    · Type of CNC Machining

    types of cnc machining

    Though this is a topic for another blog article, there are many variations of CNC machining, some of which are more advanced or more costly than others. For instance, there are 3-axis and multi-axis CNC machines, as well as milling and turning machines. Each of these falls somewhere different on the price spectrum. For example, when used, a 3-axis CNC turning machine has a lower CNC prototyping cost than multi-axis machines such as the 4-axis and 5-axis machines. This is because the multi-axis machines are capable of making prototypes with more complex geometries.

    Typically, CNC prototyping services will offer many CNC machining options. If you aren’t sure which CNC machine is the right choice for your prototype, don’t hesitate to reach out to your prototyping company.

    · Order Size

    order size

    This one may seem obvious: the more parts you order, the more you will pay. However, it is more complex since the economy of scale comes into play. This means that the cost of ordering one part may not necessarily increase relative to how many parts you order. Rather, the larger the volume of parts, the cheaper the cost per part will become.

    The economies of scale are not just applicable to injection molding, where there is an absorption of the high cost of tooling, the more parts are made. It also comes into play for CNC prototyping. This is because on preparing and manufacturing a prototype, the CNC machining service can replicate the process without the same degree of preparation each time. It may not influence material costs, but it can reduce the CNC prototyping cost associated with labor and time.

    · Labor


    Another factor that determines the cost of prototyping is labor. The cost of CNC machining is not only made up of material and machine costs: CNC machining providers also have to pay a highly skilled team of operators, as well as design engineers and other support staff. Labor cost is therefore built into the quote you receive from your CNC service.

    The cost of labor is, however, directly tied to many other elements mentioned in this article. For instance, a prototype with a complex geometry that will take longer to manufacture will require more labor or more experienced labor. This leads to a higher CNC prototyping cost than a simple part that requires less time to machine and thus less labor.

    Labor costs are also driven before the manufacturing stage. If your design requires digitization or optimization for production, the services you are outsourcing to will factor the costs of a design engineer into your production costs.

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    Many factors determine how much CNC prototyping cost. Their mode of action can be direct or indirect, and knowing about each factor is important when considering outsourcing to a CNC prototyping service.

    This article showed the secret of CNC prototyping and the different factors that determine the cost of prototyping. These properties can also be tailored to how much CNC prototyping cost. Do you have need quality prototyping done? Then think RapidDirect. Our team of experts is well-versed in CNC machining and will help you get the best of your design.


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