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Getting a steel prototype made?

hypoxide's Avatar

I’m trying to figure out the best course of action for my invention, which will be made of steel.

I have a hand-made drawing. I went to a machine shop to get a quote for a prototype of the item and the cost will be around $700 (which is out of my budget for this stage of development). I think the price was so high because I didn’t have a CAD drawing?

I’m not positive I’ll find this iteration of the prototype to be acceptable, and I don’t want to spend $700 for every iteration. To decide if I’m satisfied with the design, I was thinking of getting a plastic one made, then I would move it into production. However, I need a functional prototype made before I can get funding for production and that means I need a steel prototype.

I don’t know what to do:
• If I get a CAD drawing made, would a steel version be cheaper to produce (e.g., using a CNC machine instead of machining by hand?)
• Should I go through all the prototype iterations in plastic until I’m happy with the design?

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williamj's Avatargold


Working at this early stage of development it’s not unusual to have (or do it your self) a prototype fashioned out of wood just to make sure that all moving parts are functioning according to design (no interference between parts). After everything is determined to be functioning as planned then a more costly prototype would be inline for functionality, making sure it is strong enough and does what it was designed for (lifting – moving or whatever).

Taking baby steps is part and parcel to the whole process.

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marcelselten's Avatar

think about 3D printing?
good luck

John Vilardi
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chief's Avatar

If you really have to test the prototype with the real material such as steel, then making a CAD model and sending the file to CNC machine would likely be the final step you need to take. But before that, you should be able to use 3D printing, in plastics, for the iterations. The cost is reasonable. But for all these, a CAD model is necessary. I am not talking about 2D CAD drawings, but 3D CAD model. Either CNC or 3D printing would need the output of a 3D CAD model. (There is also 3D printing machines that use steel or even Titanium, but the cost is probably out of the question.) If it is a rather simple model, you might get away with a set of 2D drawings and have it machined by hand. In that case, hand drawings might also work. Many model makers also offer 2D CAD drawing and 3D CAD modeling services.
Now if you are doing this for EN submissions, you might be over doing it. As William suggested you can use whatever material available to make a rough prototype, merely to prove the concept. That would be enough for the purpose. This is an invention submission project and not a product development project. There is a big difference. The focus is the quality of the concept and not the glory of the prototype.

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awildx's Avatar

Are there any “Makers” groups in your area? We have one around here that will help you make anything from anything. There is always a group of CAD guys, metal guys, engineers, garage mechanics, etc. They’ll help if you can find them and befriend them.

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alexadracheca's Avatar

Adam W, what is the name of the "makers" you know?

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williamj's Avatargold

Google Maker Labs for your area. They're all over.

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smoker's Avatar


I'm a tool and die maker with all machine shop equipment in my garage,call me i'm an inventor with a US Patent. Phone  704-691-7232

Cleve Smith

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rpontius's Avatarg8_badge

The problem you are running into is quantity. Of that $700, as much as $400 might be for one-time setup (making a fixture, aligning the machine, etc.). You would have the same issue with CNC and there might be added G-code programming cost as well. If you make 1,000 or even 100 units you would spread the setup cost across units (say 40 cents or $4 per unit) but with a quantity of 1 that one unit includes all setup cost ($400).

I have two suggestions:

1. Get a CAD model made that can be converted (via CAM) to G-code and a toolpath for a specific CNC machine (post process). Better yet, learn a integrated CAD/CAM package like the FREE Autodesk Fusion 360 and do this yourself at no cost and better control/ability to iterate.

2. Contact a machining/CNC instructor at your local community college or trade school (or even high school/ISD tech center) and ask if their students would be able to fabricate your prototype with a Bridgeport/knee mill or CNC machine as a class "project" or as a special project for advanced students looking for a challenge. Offer to at least cover the cost of the stock/material.

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phonepaal's Avatargold

This may be the unwanted advice: you should learn CAD.  Blender is a good free one.  Plenty of tutorials on youtube.  Then make your prototypes on a 3D printer.  The prices have come down a lot.

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