Tooling is an important component of manufacturing and molding processes. From the components and machinery needed for production fixtures, molds and jigs to the proper function and use of each, effective tooling can extend your production capabilities and keep your product viable for longer without making changes in composition or design -- and better tooling will also help you create a better product at the end of the day.


But the demands of tooling can vary. Even similar techniques require different tooling, and mismatching your tooling with your processes can leave you with an inferior product that may not perform as intended. After all, reliable manufacturing depends on using the right tooling processes to yield the intended results, and knowing when to use soft and hard tooling is an important piece of the puzzle.


Soft Tooling


A common alternative to hard tooling, soft tooling is a cost-effective way to deal with limited production needs, allowing manufacturers to produce short runs of products quickly and affordably. Great for prototyping or for internal use before spinning up a larger effort, soft tooling is a common approach during product development or to gauge public interest before doubling down on a larger production run.


Not only is soft tooling flexible, allowing for various materials to be used with less issue, it's also ideal for certain products that may not be ready for a full production run, with significant time or financial investments needed. Soft tooling gives a similar result to hard tooling, and it can help you see what a given product will look like and how it'll function in the real world.


Unfortunately, soft tooling won't last forever. As the name suggests, these soft tools won't be able to make more than a few thousand parts before wearing down and needing to be swapped out, making them less than ideal for any kind of real production run. Compared to hard tooling, their durability is far too low to rely on day in and day out, but they do give you just enough time to make a prototype or several before they expire.


Hard Tooling


On the other hand, hard tooling is made from durable metals such as steel or nickel alloys, and that means they can withstand huge production runs and multiple production cycles before needing to be replaced. Tolerances are low and the exacting standards means that hard tooling lasts longer, ensuring that you'll be able to get through that production run without issue.


But hard tooling isn't without its drawbacks. Because of the harder materials and the precision involved, hard tooling is much more expensive to produce and to institute, which can push timelines back and draw significantly on your budget, particularly when used for short runs or prototyping. Due to these challenges, most manufacturers turn to soft tooling in the early stages of product development, only shifting to hard tooling once a full production run is called for.


Hard Tooling vs. Soft Tooling


As we've mentioned, the primary concern between hard and soft tooling -- whether you're working with sheet metal or any other material -- has to do with timeline and budget. If your timeline is condensed and your budget is minimal, soft tooling is likely the better option. Soft tooling will allow you to complete your prototyping or a short product run quicker, with more flexibility and less expense than the same approach with hard tooling.


But if you've already gone though the prototyping and you're ready for a large production run or even multiple production runs, your best bet is hard tooling. They'll last much longer than comparable runs with short tooling, and the resulting products will be more consistent over the entire run.


On the cost side, hard tooling may run many times what comparable soft tooling would cost, and you'll only be able to justify the cost if you're entering a comprehensive production run. Furthermore, the timeline may be measured in months, so it's not ideal if you're looking for a quick prototype or sample. 


Use Cases for Soft Tooling


When the power and efficiency of a full production run isn't needed -- or if budgets or timelines require something different -- soft tooling is ideal for shorter runs and on-demand needs. If you're looking to model a product design for stakeholders or to prove a design concept out, soft tooling is ideal. It's great for demonstrations, testing and approval, and it can also help your team visualize the product in the wild while assorted design considerations may still be kicking around out there.


Market testing is also an ideal method to leverage soft tooling as it'll yield the same product but without the delays and expense of hard tooling. Instead of guessing at how the market will receive your product, soft tooling allows you to affordably spin up the capability to create a few prototypes that can be interacted with while also keeping costs low. If you happen to get important feedback, you can also affordably make changes to the tooling and redesign the product to better fit the needs of the market.


For VIPs, soft tooling is a great way to give back to your most ardent supporters with a behind-the-scenes look at your next product. Not only does that give you even more ways to get feedback on that upcoming product, but soft tooling allows you to pivot and actually do something about it without jeopardizing your budget, giving you another chance to fix any problems before you start in on that larger production run.


Advantages of Soft Tooling


Primarily, most manufacturers go with soft tooling because it's easier to work with. Soft tooling is many times cheaper than comparable hard tooling, and this flexibility in budget also pays off when considering the ease in which soft tooling can be created. Even if you alter the design and new tooling needs to be created, you'll have the ability to do so because of the low cost.


Soft tooling is also much faster to produce and work with than hard tooling, and turnaround is often measured in days or weeks, not months like with hard tooling. That makes it ideal when you're working with a variety of materials since soft tooling is less selective -- the metal used for hard tooling may only work for certain materials.


If you're looking for an engineering partner that can help you prototype and iterate your designs on the way to a successful product launch, contact the engineering experts at RCO Engineering. We're designers, engineers and builders, and we have the experience and know how to help you launch your next successful product.