Two Types of Rapid Tooling for Prototyping

Rapid tooling

Rapid tooling can have an incredibly positive impact on the prototyping process. Using rapid tooling, product designers can make multiple prototypes in a fraction of the time it would take to make them using conventional tooling methods. For many entrepreneurs, inventors, and businesses, this method truly is one of the best ways to develop a new product from scratch.

To make the most of this process, however, you need to know which type of rapid tooling to use. There are two main types of rapid tooling—direct and indirect—that have different pros and cons. Some product designers will gain the most benefit from a direct rapid tooling process, while others should consider using an indirect method instead. In this guide, we’ll walk you through the two main types of rapid tooling to help you decide which option is the best fit for your product and prototyping process.

Two Types of Rapid Tooling: Direct vs. Indirect

Rapid tooling is an umbrella term that refers to any process that allows you to make a tool or mold in a short amount of time. It is generally faster and more streamlined than conventional tooling. However, there’s more to rapid tooling than just this basic definition. There are also two different types of rapid tooling you can choose from and even a few subcategories within these two types. To use rapid tooling effectively during the prototyping stage, it’s important to know which type to focus on before you begin the process.

Direct Tooling

Indirect Tooling

The first type of rapid tooling is direct tooling. With direct tooling, you perform the following steps:

  • Step 1: Create a model of the tool or mold using Computer-Aided Design (CAD) software.
  • Step 2: Send the file to a machine or printer to make the actual mold or tool that will be used for producing prototypes. This can either be a subtractive process where a CNC machine cuts raw material to form the shape or an additive process where a 3D printer builds up the shape from scratch.
  • Step 3: The tool or mold produced can then be used directly to make prototypes—typically a very small number of them.
The second type of rapid tooling is indirect tooling. With indirect tooling, you perform the following steps:

  • Step 1: Create a model of the master tool or mold using CAD software.
  • Step 2: Send the file to a machine or printer to create a master mold or tool, also known as a pattern. This master pattern is typically very durable.
  • Step 3: Make more molds or tools based on the master pattern. The new molds or tools can be made from different types of materials with different properties. You can use the master pattern for either hard tooling (tools made from durable or robust materials) or soft tooling (tools that are less robust). A single master pattern can produce many different tools or molds in large or small quantities, which in turn can produce many more prototypes.

Generally speaking, direct tooling is a fast and simple way to create tools or molds, whereas indirect tooling can be more time-consuming and requires a few more steps or resources. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that direct tooling is the most appropriate option for prototyping. In fact, many product designers prefer to use indirect tooling during the prototyping stage. Because there are a number of advantages and disadvantages associated with both types of rapid tooling, you should weigh your options carefully.

When Should You Use Direct Rapid Tooling?

Direct vs. Indirect Tooling

Direct rapid tooling is actually more commonly used during manufacturing than for prototyping. In a short-run production, this type of rapid tooling enables you to create a mold or tool very quickly and begin producing products from it almost immediately. It’s especially beneficial for short-run productions because the tool doesn’t typically have to be very robust or durable. You can manufacture up to about 5,000 parts from this type of mold, depending on the materials you use and the complexity of the design.

You can still use this type of rapid tooling for prototyping, but its uses are limited. Here are a few pros and cons you should consider if you want to use direct rapid tooling to make prototypes.

Direct Rapid Tooling: Pros and Cons



Faster production and shortened lead times (you can make tools or molds in just a few days or weeks) Often not as robust or durable as prototypes made via indirect rapid tooling methods
Involves fewer steps May have to create multiple tools or molds in different materials without a master pattern, which could introduce errors or discrepancies in the tool or mold dimensions
Sometimes requires fewer resources If the tool or mold breaks or you want to experiment with new material, you have to start the entire process over again
Can produce multiple prototypes from a single mold or tool May not be appropriate for highly complex designs or materials that require a durable mold or tool to produce intricate details
Extremely flexible, allowing you to make multiple molds or tools very quickly as your design changes Could result in higher product development costs, especially if you create multiple molds or tools for each new design iteration

If you have an idea for a design and simply want to test its feasibility as fast as possible, then this type of rapid tooling may be a good option. It’s also an option if you don’t need to produce prototypes with a high level of detail or if you’re still quite early in the design process. It doesn’t necessarily make sense to create a master pattern for a design that could change at any moment. Direct rapid tooling is a flexible method that gives you the freedom to experiment with different dimensions.

When Should You Use Indirect Rapid Tooling?

Indirect rapid tooling is much more common during the prototyping stage compared to other types of rapid tooling. That’s because it’s meant for experimentation and testing. When you already have a detailed design and you want to test different materials, for example, indirect rapid tooling is a great option as it makes it easy to create multiple test tools and molds from the same master pattern. Here are a few other advantages of this type of rapid tooling (as well as some potential downsides you should weigh them against).

Indirect Rapid Tooling: Pros and Cons



The master pattern is very durable and rarely gets damaged during the prototyping process Slightly more time-consuming to produce compared to direct rapid tooling
You will likely only have to invest in one master pattern (unless your design changes) Involves an intermediary step that could incur higher costs
Can make either hard or soft tools based on your needs. Hard tools are ideal for complex designs, while soft tools can be used for simple designs or cost-effective prototype testing Not always a good option if you believe your design will change significantly during the prototyping stage
Less variation between different tools and molds, as they are all based on the same master pattern May require higher quality materials to make a robust master pattern
Ideal for experimenting with different materials, as you can make tools or molds that are best suited to a particular material or prototyping methodology Not always necessary for simple designs that don’t require a high level of dimensional precision or accuracy

In all, indirect rapid tooling is the preferred option for product designers that are ready to thoroughly test their prototypes and select materials or finishes for their end products.

Choosing the Best Option for Your Process

Indirect Rapid Tooling

Which type of rapid tooling should you choose? It depends on your product and where you are in the design process. For example, if you’re still very early in the process and only have a basic sketch of a design, it’s likely too early to decide on which type of rapid tooling to use. Even if you create a design that you’d like to test, the complexity of that design can dictate whether you use direct or indirect rapid tooling to make your prototypes. This guideline can help point you in the right direction, but ultimately you will need to discuss your specific prototyping needs with an experienced prototype manufacturer before you can begin this process in earnest.

The prototype manufacturer will not only help you prepare your design for the rapid tooling process (including creating a 3D model of it using advanced CAD software), but the company will also make tooling recommendations based on a number of factors unique to your project. These may include:

  • Budget
  • Timeline
  • Design complexity
  • Materials
  • Tolerances 
  • Whether you need hard or soft tooling
  • And more

When you rely on engineering experts to carefully assess your situation based on these factors, you’ll land on the most appropriate type of rapid tooling for your product. With their help, you’ll make it through the prototyping process as quickly and efficiently as possible so you can start making a high return on your investment.

Pacific Research Laboratories is an experienced prototyping company that uses the most advanced rapid tooling methods and technology to produce high-quality prototypes. Our team of engineers will offer you recommendations on which types of rapid tooling to use based on factors unique to your product. If you’re ready to take the next step, visit our contact page or call (206) 408-7603.