Form Factory’s Secret for Imaginative Prototyping

When up to 95 percent of a company’s machining jobs involve making fewer than five copies of a prototype, there is no familiar process for the programmers to fall into, no tried-and-true code to run the way they might at a shop that mass manufactures thousands of copies of a part. Form Factory, in Portland, Oregon, has never wanted to be just another manufacturing shop. “A lot of shops really are geared toward pallet changers and automation and ripping through material as fast as possible. We really specialize in low volume and creativity,” said founder Brian Ross.

In a shop where quality so obviously towers over quantity, Ross expects precise, innovative, and aesthetically pleasing results. “To me, machining is sculpture. I’ve always tried to make parts that look like they grew that way,” he explained. Providing customers with the absolute best prototype possible means the entire manufacturing process must be flawless, from start to finish.

After the design is sketched out, it is modeled within Mastercam. The Form Factory team relies on Verify to catch any problems before they happen and to check tolerances, which can be within one-thousandth of an inch. The design team may alter the design countless times before deciding that it is perfect. “Some projects, we’re doing reiteration after reiteration to try to get a product to market,” said Ross, “Sometimes we’re only doing one little mechanical detail, but we’ll do it again and again to get some functionality to work just right. Then that’s incorporated into the design, and ultimately we can make a hard model that looks just like the real thing.”

mastercam software

The hard models are machined out of fragile, high-density urethane foam or tooling board. The material is extremely difficult to work with, so extra precautions must be taken to ensure accurate machining. Dynamic Motion technology is the solution. Dynamic toolpaths are equipped with proprietary algorithms designed to constantly monitor the parent material during machining. If the technology detects any change in the material, it immediately adjusts to compensate. Now material waste is almost a nonissue for Form Factory.

Not only does Dynamic Motion Technology save material, it saves tools, too. Tool life at Form Factory has more than tripled since the implementation of Dynamic. Ross said, “Some of the software’s high efficiency machining allows you to use the entire cutting flute of that cutter rather than dulling the very tip of the cutter. You’d have 90 percent of the cutting flute sharp as day, but you’d have to throw that tool out and start again. Now you can get way better tool life and prep things much faster, and you still have reasonably sized chips.”

machined product

Unsurprisingly for a shop that made a name for itself by creating the most innovative prototypes possible, Form Factory is constantly striving to improve. Ross views every failed design as a learning opportunity, “Some of our successes that we have here at Form Factory—from a design standpoint—are the failures. When somebody’s idea fails, we still answered that question early on. You prototype to figure out what works and what doesn’t.”

You can learn more about this inventive machining and prototyping company in the Cutting Tool Engineering article: Form Factory Combines Innovation and Art to Produce Prototypes.