If developing packaging for Hewlett-Packard's top-selling DeskJet printers is a high-pressure job packaging engineer Kevin Howard doesn't show it. With more than a half-million DeskJet printers shipping out of three manufacturing sites worldwide each month the stakes for the packaging team are incredibly high. If the rush to meet a launch date results in a package that causes damage losses can top $1 million in a matter of weeks. Conversely spending too much time on cushion design could jeopardize the launch date leaving room for fast-acting competitors to grab marketshare. It's a tightrope that Howard seems comfortable walking. This is an engineer who dismisses cushion curves as erroneous: he routinely designs packaging foam pieces with half the recommended volume. Yet he attains shock pulses that aren't possible according to such curves. How does he get away with it? In a word testing. By substituting real-world testing of actual molded prototype parts instead of designing from textbook cushion curves Howard is able to carve away unneeded foam from the design. All without compromising product protection or missing a launch date. Ordinarily creating prototype molds would be considered a luxury in time and expense. But Howard along with a group of technicians at HP's Vancouver WA facility where DeskJet printers are designed and manufactured developed a prototyping process that produces high-quality molded parts for final package testing in one to two weeks. In some cases as quickly as four days. The most impressive piece of the prototyping puzzle put in place a year and a half ago consists of the ability to produce a prototype mold in-house using nothing other than a computer numerically controlled (CNC) milling machine and CAD software found in the product R&D lab of any large manufacturer. Here's what the prototype mold offers: * It eliminates the drawbacks of the traditional prototyping process including hand-carved samples from foam billets. Usually carved by vendors at no charge such samples don't test reliably Howard charges since consistent part geometry is difficult to replicate from part to part. * By using a prototype mold HP can test a molded part before actually committing to a final production mold. Compared to hand-carved or machine-milled parts molded parts have higher consistency in geometry and density so test results will virtually match the characteristics of production parts. * Molded prototypes are cheaper to produce. HP requires at least 40 sets of end caps-too many for hand-carving-for its extensive drop testing. A hundred or more additional parts are needed to send prototype printers to various business partners. * Modifications to the prototype mold can be done in-house in a day or two versus weeks with conventional molds. * Final package samples are ready before the first prototype build of the actual product they're designed to protect months before a new product is released. Previously molded samples of packaging weren't available until just weeks prior to launch raising the spectre of a missed launch due to packaging snafus. "I can't claim that it actually speeds up our product introduction to the marketplace but I know that we won't ever hang it up anymore" says Howard who described HP's rapid prototyping process at the Transpack '96 conference in February sponsored by the Institute of Packaging Professionals.