DURA Automotive’s main factory in Germany specialises in producing glass elements, structural body components and visible, decorative elements to some of the biggest names in the automotive industry.

In their quest for faster, more cost effective ways to produce prototype, new parts for testing and evaluation, DURA engineers recently discovered the services of Proto Labs.

Parts designed and made by DURA Automotive, such as gear changing systems and pedals, are subject to very stringent quality control, not least because they are in prominent locations and are visible to the driver, or are safety critical items, such as door and body components.

DURA’s customers often allow the company a free rein to design and develop a new part entirely from scratch. However, it’s more common that the brief will come with tight specifications for performance, fit, cost, etc. With a comprehensive, in-house manufacturing capability, DURA engineers are able to offer exactly what the customer is looking for.

For company design engineer Laurent Badet, a visit to the headquarters of DURA’s parent company, near Detroit in the US, led to the discovery of Proto Labs and a new, faster, lower cost means to prototype development parts. In this particular case, a new roof rail system for a new car of a famous automotive manufacturer was developed.

“In order to connect the roof rails to the roof of the car, one part is attached in between, as a tolerance compensation system,” he said. “Previous standard parts were not suitable for this new type of railing. I had a good idea for changing the standard part, which in my opinion, could meet all the requirements. The only problem was that the customer wanted to see the finished part installed to evaluate it before finalising the design and beginning production. At that point, I had no idea how I would do it, in the short time available.”

However, help was at hand. “An American colleague recommended Proto Labs,” he added. “We uploaded the CAD model to the Protomold website and requested a quote for injection moulded components. To my surprise, we had the quote and a full, feasibility analysis within a couple of hours. A few days later and we had the part, made of the correct resin, and we were able to show the customer the full functionality of my proposed tolerance compensation system.”

When he returned to Germany, he showed his rapid injection moulded parts and the Protomold system to Kai Winkhaus, teamleader of the product design team at DURA, who was equally impressed with the results. “I have worked for 15 years with CAD, mainly in CATIA,” he said, “and you certainly can simulate a lot with powerful software. But, when it comes to the phase in which a part has be realised, the costs can increase very quickly.

“Making the actual part using materials as close to the final specification as possible can provide very valuable feedback before committing to full production. The parts supplied by Protomold enabled us to communicate internally and externally without incurring high costs or long lead times. The prototype parts were fully functional and very accurate. We got what we needed to help speed up the development process and without putting undue stress on the budget.”

Badet added, “I’m not an injection moulding specialist. I have developed plastic parts in the past, but I wish I’d had the support of Proto Labs at that time. Each part uploaded to the website is analysed by ProtoQuote and suggestions are made automatically for improving the part to make it easier, faster and lower cost to manufacture. These ‘tips’ and the interactive quote arrive very quickly. Then, between one and 15 days later – depending on the service you request, the parts are on your desk.”

Shortly after DURA used the system for the first time, another project presented itself, also with tight deadlines and equally tight specification. The task was to design a clip system so that one, lone worker could mount and secure a roof rack during assembly of the vehicle, without using ergonomic handles.

“Badet continued, “By using the Protomold system we had the opportunity to try different variations, without having to invest too much money in the tools. In a very short time, a reliable clip was developed. The solution presented was very convincing, largely because everything could be demonstrated in real, working conditions. We could have made the parts using our 3D printer, but they would have been illustrative, only. Not fully functional parts, as delivered by Proto Labs.”

Winkhaus added, “Testing with real parts also stimulates creativity. If you have multiple, functioning components in front of you, you can ‘play around’ and explore new ideas.”

Badet claimed DURA intends to also use the Protomold service for more demanding projects. “The accuracy and precision of the parts that were delivered impressed us. We are now convinced that Protomold will meet the strict requirements on parts where high-quality surface finishes are vital. I look forward to continuing to work with Protomold, because the service helps us to balance cost on the one hand and quality on the other, in the shortest time.”