Soft Tooling vs. Hard Tooling: Definitions & Comparisons
Tooling plays a pivotal role in bringing designs to life and transforming raw materials into finished products. Tooling encompasses the process of designing and developing tools necessary for production, ensuring precision and efficiency, and forms the foundation of many manufacturing and molding processes. It involves the construction of various components and machinery necessary for production, such as jigs, molds, and fixtures. Effective tooling extends a product’s lifecycle and contributes to overall product quality.
Within the tooling domain, two distinct methodologies, soft tooling, and hard tooling, have emerged, each with its own unique characteristics and applications. A clear understanding of the term "tooling" is important before diving into the distinctions between soft tooling and hard tooling. Tools are objects or devices used to achieve specific tasks or objectives. They are tangible instruments that aid in the completion of a particular function. On the other hand, tooling encompasses a broader scope. It refers to the overall process of designing, creating, and implementing tools for manufacturing purposes. Tooling is a comprehensive approach that includes factors such as tool design, material selection, production methods, and quality assurance. For example, injection molding and cast urethane molding are tooling methods used to produce certain products, but the actual tool used to make the product is the mold.
Soft and hard tooling are two widely used tooling techniques. Soft tooling is used for creating prototypes and for small production runs. Hard tooling is typically used only for high-volume production runs. Soft tooling is usually preferred for concept validation, testing, and low-volume production. Conversely, hard tooling is ideal for large-scale manufacturing, where accuracy, durability, and efficiency are critical factors. Another notable distinction between the two techniques is the materials used. Silicone and carbon fiber composites are commonly used for soft tooling, while steel or aluminum is typically used for hard tooling.
In this article, we will explore the distinctions between soft tooling and hard tooling, as well as the appropriate use cases for each. We’ll also take a look at their advantages and disadvantages, and the materials used to manufacture the molds.
Soft tooling is the process of creating temporary or less permanent tools or molds used in manufacturing processes. These tools are typically made from materials that are easier to work with and modify. They are commonly used in the prototyping and initial production stages of a product before transitioning to more durable and expensive hard tooling. Moreover, soft tooling is a cost-effective method of tooling that finds popularity in applications such as cast urethane molding. Cast urethanes use a platinum-cured silicone soft tool mold instead of a hard tool mold (aluminum or steel) which saves on cost and time.
The use of soft tooling enables manufacturers to quickly produce low to medium volumes of parts, typically 1-100 units. One of the notable advantages of soft tooling is its flexibility in material requirements. Manufacturers have the freedom to use different materials without excessive concern about compatibility issues. This flexibility adds convenience and versatility to the tooling process. Soft tooling is an excellent choice for prototyping to make mock-ups or test parts before series production begins. or require the production of functional yet straightforward products with a smooth finish. Additionally, soft tooling is preferred for creating intricate mold patterns that would be time-consuming or challenging to produce using hard tooling.
However, it is important to acknowledge the limitations of soft tooling. As the name suggests, soft tool materials tend to lack the durability and wear resistance of tools produced using hard tooling methods. For instance, silicone tools typically have a limited lifespan of around 25 parts before they need replacement.
See a list of some of the most common soft tooling materials below:
- Carbon fiber composites
Soft tooling offers several advantages over hard tooling, including:
- Fast Turnaround: Since soft tooling materials are easier to shape and modify, they allow for rapid design iterations and adjustments during the product development phase. Soft tooling is particularly beneficial when the design is not yet finalized and may require frequent modifications.
- Cost-Effectiveness: Soft tooling is known for being cost-effective, particularly for low to medium-volume production runs. The materials used in soft tooling, such as silicone, carbon fiber composites, or fiberglass, are often more affordable than the durable metals used in hard tooling. This cost advantage makes soft tooling a good option for manufacturers with limited budgets, or for projects that do not require high-volume production.
- Complex Geometries: Soft tooling excels in handling complex finished part geometries. The flexibility of soft tooling materials, such as silicone, allows for intricate details and complex shapes to be accurately replicated. Soft tools, created through 3D printing, can produce molds with high fidelity to the pattern.
Although there are a lot of advantages associated with soft tooling, it does have its limitations, including:
- Limited Production Volume: Soft tooling is typically suitable for low to moderate production volumes. It may not be capable of withstanding the high-volume demands of large-scale production. Hard tooling, on the other hand, is designed for high-volume production.
- Reduced Tool Life: Soft tooling materials, such as silicone or urethane, are generally less durable than the rigid materials used in hard tooling, such as steel or aluminum. Soft tooling may wear out or deform faster, especially when subjected to high-pressure or high-temperature conditions. This can result in shorter tool life, requiring more frequent replacements or repairs, which can increase production downtime and overall costs.
- Less Dimensional Accuracy: Soft tooling materials can deform or wear over time, resulting in reduced dimensional accuracy and repeatability in the manufactured parts. Hard tooling, being more rigid and durable, typically provides superior dimensional consistency and tighter tolerances.
- Limited Material Compatibility: Soft tooling may have limitations in terms of material compatibility. It may not be suitable for certain high-temperature or abrasive materials that require the robustness and heat resistance of hard tooling. Soft tooling materials may also have limitations in terms of chemical resistance or compatibility with specific material formulations. This can restrict the range of materials that can be effectively processed using soft tooling.
- Surface Finish Limitations: While soft tooling can provide a smoother surface finish, it may have limitations in achieving certain surface finishes, textures, or details compared to hard tooling. The flexibility of soft tooling materials can result in less precise replication of intricate surface features, which may be important for specific applications or aesthetic requirements.
- Longer Cycle Times: Soft tooling processes can have longer cycle times compared to hard tooling due to the nature of the materials and manufacturing techniques involved. The flexibility of soft tooling materials may require additional time for demolding, cooling, or setting, which can impact production throughput and efficiency.
- Higher Cost Per Unit: Soft tooling may have a lower initial cost compared to hard tooling, but when considering the shorter lifespan and potential need for frequent replacements, the overall tooling cost per finished part unit can be higher. Hard tooling, although more expensive initially, can offer a better return on investment in high-volume production scenarios.
Hard tooling are widely implemented. It can be used for stamping, machining, casting of all kinds, welding, assembly, and injection molding processes. It involves the use of robust materials such as steel or nickel alloys to create durable tools capable of withstanding hundreds of thousands of production cycles. This enables manufacturers to efficiently produce large volumes of parts. Hard tooling is preferred when strict tolerances must be met, making it suitable for the production of high-precision and long-lasting parts.
However, it's important to note that overall hard tooling comes with higher costs and longer manufacturing lead times compared to soft tooling. The upfront expenses and time required for manufacturing hard tools are significantly greater. Therefore, it is not cost-effective to utilize hard tooling for short production runs or when the primary goal is to quickly bring products to market. The production process for hard tools involves additional steps such as heat treatments, post-processing, and extra machining to achieve a smooth finish, which is crucial for seamless layering or stacking materials and optimal performance. This adds to the overall cost of the process.
However, there are cases where soft tooling can be more expensive than hard tooling in terms of cost per unit. Examples of such cases include high production runs where a surface finish is not as important.
Common materials used for hard tooling include:
- Steel alloys
- Nickel alloys
- Aluminum alloys
Hard tooling has a number of advantages over soft tooling:
- Heat Resistance: The materials used in hard tooling make it more resistant to heat than soft tooling. This makes it more suitable for manufacturing with certain materials that require higher processing temperatures.
- Durability: Hard tooling materials, such as steel, are highly durable and can withstand high-pressure and high-temperature conditions for extended periods. This durability makes hard tooling suitable for high-volume production environments where molds or dies need to withstand frequent use without significant wear or damage.
- Precision and Repeatability: Hard tooling can provide greater precision and dimensional accuracy compared to soft tooling. The rigid nature of hard tooling materials allows for tighter tolerances and more consistent part dimensions. This is crucial when producing complex parts that require precise fit, assembly, or interaction with other components.
- Longer Tool Life: Hard tooling materials have a longer lifespan compared to soft tooling materials. The robust nature of hard tooling allows for extended use before needing repairs or replacements, resulting in cost savings over time. This advantage is especially significant for high-volume production where tool longevity is essential.
- High-Volume Production Capability: Hard tooling is well-suited for high-volume production due to its durability and precision. Multiple cavities can be incorporated into hard tooling molds, allowing for the simultaneous production of multiple parts in each molding cycle. This increases production efficiency and reduces per-unit costs.
- Material Compatibility: Hard tooling can accommodate a wide range of materials, including engineering plastics, metals, and composites. It can withstand the high temperatures and pressures associated with various manufacturing processes, such as injection molding or stamping. This versatility makes hard tooling suitable for a broader range of applications and materials compared to soft tooling.
- Surface Finish Control: While soft tooling may provide a smoother surface finish, hard tooling offers better control over surface finishes. The surface texture or finish can be precisely designed and replicated in hard tooling, allowing for specific aesthetic or functional requirements of the parts being produced.
- Long-Term Cost Savings: In the long term, and for high production volumes, hard tooling may be more cost-effective than soft tooling since hard tooling molds last significantly longer than soft tooling molds.
Some disadvantages of hard tooling compared to soft tooling are:
- Cost: Due to the materials used, hard tooling molds are much more expensive and time-consuming to produce.
- Less Flexibility: Because of the complexity and cost associated with creating hard tooling molds, it is harder and more expensive to modify part designs in response to test results or revisions by a customer.
- Geometry Limitations: The rigidity of hard tooling materials make it more difficult to achieve intricate details and complex geometry than with soft tooling materials.
The choice between soft and hard tooling should be determined by the specific needs of the project. Listed below are some of the factors to consider in choosing between these two types of tooling techniques:
When dealing with complex geometries, it is advisable to opt for soft tooling due to its faster turnaround times and cost-effectiveness. If a redesign is required, it is easier to accomplish with soft tooling techniques that utilize 3D printing or CNC machining, resulting in the production of intricate soft tools in a matter of hours or days. Once the design has been refined, it can then be progressed to hard tooling.
It takes longer to make hard tools than it does to make soft tools. While a hard tool may require several weeks to complete, a soft mold can be prepared within a matter of days. Hard molds may demand more time to manufacture, and incur higher up-front costs, but they offer superior durability and longevity.
Soft tools play a valuable role in the tooling process, particularly when meeting market deadlines is crucial. They can be developed initially to gather customer input and conduct market testing. This enables companies to make adjustments and refinements based on valuable feedback before proceeding to the more time-consuming and costly hard tooling stage.
If you want a tool with a long lifespan, then hard tooling is the way to go. Soft tools don’t have a very long life span and are only efficient for about 25-50 injection molding shots. Hard tools, on the other hand, can be used for thousands of shots. This is because hard tools made of metals can withstand higher temperatures than soft tooling materials.
Soft tooling is ideal for manufacturers on a tight budget looking to create a small number of parts. On the other hand, if the manufacturer has a large quantity requirement and budget constraints are not a problem, then they should opt for hard tooling — which will give more value for money.
In terms of surface finish, soft tooling is ahead of the game. Soft tooling produces a smoother surface finish compared to hard tooling. The difference in surface finish between soft tooling and hard tooling can be attributed to several factors including: material elasticity, mold release properties, vibration damping, and reduced tool marks.
This article presented soft tooling vs. hard tooling, explained them both, and discussed their comparisons. To learn more about soft tooling and hard tooling, contact a Xometry representative.
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