Don't miss out HAXLR8R 2013, apply now!
Nestled in a quiet neighborhood on the outskirts of Zhongshan is a group of buildings that looks similar to the surrounding factories except that they proudly display an English name: Star Prototype.
I had the pleasure of visiting with Gordon Styles, the owner of Star Prototype and getting a tour of the facilities as well as being entertained by Gordon's finely tuned British self-depreciating humor.
Entering into the factory I was greeted by something you rarely see in China: a smiling guard and a happy, bouncing golden retriever begging me to take the tennis ball from its slobber infested mouth. It was about the dirtiest thing I saw during the entire visit.
Star Prototype focuses on CNC prototypes, small batch polyurethane casting, tooling production, and other prototyping services. The quality, attention to detail, and cleanliness of the factory was something that is rare to find in either China, the US, or Europe.
As we went through the factory, we saw many interesting processes: polyurethane casting of models for small batch prototypes. This is an economical way of creating prototypes based on a CNC milled master template.
To drastically simplify, the process consists of taking a silicone mold and then filling it with polyurethane under moderate vacuum. Once the part has hardened, it is removed from the mold and cleaned by the model technicians. This results in a part with great detail replication and excellent mechanical properties.
The silicone mold is typically made from a master template. This master is a part that is milled from ABS or Acrylic. Although the silicone mold is only good for about 10 parts, the master can be used to create multiple silicone molds if needed.
In the main machining hall, there is a bank of CNC machines used for creating the CNC prototypes. In keeping with the friendly work environment, there were potted plants next to the machining centers. Most of the work here is done with aluminum, acrylic, ABS, and polycarbonate. Other materials such as steel are also available if needed.
We met with Michael who blinded us with science as he described the machining process: how they keep the parts aligned, how they reduce stresses, how they manage to produce thin-walled prototype parts without excessive warping. These guys have been making models for decades, and that really shone through when seeing their process and listening to the reasoning behind it.
The highlight of the tour however was their QA lab. Nearly every factory has a QA lab, but this one goes above and beyond. It was loaded with the type of equipment James Bond would have if the bad guys he was fighting were sketchy material suppliers instead of conducting international espionage.
First up, an amazing 3D scanner / robot arm / laser system that allows them to scan a finished model to a high degree of precision and then compare it to the CAD data they received from the client. This sort of automated QA allows them to see if a complex part has changed shape during the machining process, and if so just exactly how bad it is.
Next, they showed me the optical emission spectrometer which is an amazing piece of kit that vaporizes a small portion of the material under test and then analyzes the spectrum emissions to determine the exact chemical composition of the material. They can use this not only to determine the type of metal they are working with, but the exact grade they have received.
If that wasn't cool enough, they also showed me an x-ray emission fluoroscopy device which sounds like it should take up an entire room, but is really a handheld device that shoots x-rays at a material and can then interpret the light which is generated to determine what is present in the material. This is particularly useful for determining if there are any ROHS banned substances in the plastic they receive.
Last, but not least we sat down and had a long conversation about engineering, prototyping, machining, tolerances, design for manufacture, digital fabrication, doing business in China, running a factory, and all of the funny little quirks of life in the Zhongguo.
To say that these guys are professional is an understatement. All of the staff was friendly, the majority of them spoke fluent English, and the place was impeccably clean. At HAXLR8R we are vendor-neutral and our only goal is to help your startup succeed. However, Star Prototype is certainly a company to keep in mind should you need help with bringing your design to life.
Oh, and they have the most adorable end-mill grinding machine you'll ever see.