Precision Engineering and Custom CNC Machining Thoughts

Custom CNC machining beyond university machine shops

Developing a product from the ground up is a daunting task, and as a student, I faced many obstacles in the quest to turn my vision into reality. As with most students, I had the seeds of a brilliant idea, but was inexperienced in business and unfamiliar with the process of product development.

Creating a testing device for my physics project from the initial concept into something tangible and operational was an interesting learning curve from exploring on-campus resources to scouring the web for alternative solutions.  While there was some research funding and access to the university machine shop, I wanted to create something with precise geometries and tolerances for which the right tooling wasn't readily available in local machine shops.  I had to make the decision early on to make something simpler or pursue a more complex project that would require more research into off-campus machining options.

The Typical Stumbling Blocks of Prototype Development

Time, money, and means were main considerations for most students when building a working prototype to test a theory.  Simply put, we have to ask ourselves:

- How long would it take?

- How much would it cost?

- How would it be manufactured? Who would have the right machining equipment and metal alloys?

On-Campus, University Machine Shops

The most popular option for most mechanical engineering and physics students is to visit an on-campus machine shop and check out their services. These shops generally have a senior technician and master's/PhD students as teachers and technicians.  They're a reliable resource for questions on machining equipment and CNC programming. These university machine shop technicians can help or teach me to make basic pieces.  They also help other science students create well-made, fully functioning testing devices.  The biggest advantages to working with the university machine shop is that the staff is super friendly and they're equipped to machine parts in small quantities across basic aluminum alloys.  If you have a special material, they can generally point you in the right direction to search and buy online.

Of course, like other students, I've take machining courses.  Unfortunately I found that even as I learned, I lacked the precision and skills needed to produce a technically perfect piece.  I went through a lot of material and broke some tools along the way, as I learned about cutting speeds and tool hardness.

Going Off-Campus

In situations where the university machine shops could not machine the parts I needed, the technicians can refer me to some local machine shops.  These machine shops are willing to do university students a favor and create parts in limited quantities.  However, their hourly rates will be slightly more expensive and your design will likely wait in queue depending on how busy they are.  The process can be slow, sometimes taking a number of weeks to produce a single item.

I also did some research larger domestic manufacturers.  As expected, they cost a lot more money and would not be open to making parts in 1-3 pieces.

Finding the Middle Ground

I was looking for an easier solution without compromising my original design. Where could I find an engineer to manufacture my design to a high spec within a reasonable price and fast turnaround?

When it comes to choosing a manufacturer, I learned that it is very important to study all options carefully and weigh up the pros and cons of each before making a decision.  But ultimately, this research took too much time.  There are too many options to sort through and I only needed 3 pieces for my project.  

I heard of Aprototype through a friend and decided to test them out.  After sending my drawings, a consultant got back to me via email and verified some specs.  They asked me if I needed specific finishing and then I was able to confirm my order.  I received my parts within 2 weeks.  

Because I was a university student, they also understood that it takes some time for school funds to be disbursed.  Rather than paying via a credit card, Aprototype worked within university policy to receive the payment.  I was genuinely surprised that they were willing to wade through this process with me.

If you need to machine a custom part and need precise tooling, Aprototype can provide quality prototype for end-use testing in a variety of materials and finishes.  Prototyping is easy and affordable, even for unversity students like me.


Want to learn more about machining processes? Browse our blog.