Rapid Prototyping: State of the Industry

1994-95 Worldwide Progress Report

Terry Wohlers

Published in RPA/SME's Rapid Prototyping & Manufacturing '95 Conference Proceedings
Copyright 1995 by Wohlers Associates

1994 was a pivotal year for the rapid prototyping (RP) industry -- and it was the most progressive year in its history. More systems were sold in '94 than were sold in '92 and '93 combined. Many user companies purchased second and third systems, and a few companies now have as many as a dozen. Tens of thousands of RP jobs were processed last year -- more than ever before. Service providers also experienced a banner year, with record revenues and growth. After-market products and services began popping up regularly, a sure indication that RP is indeed an industry to watch.

The picture is not entirely rosy. Some system manufacturers fail to offer RP products at price/performance levels that CAD/CAM users have come to expect. Others consume valuable company resources as they fight to protect their intellectual property. Meanwhile, the industry is beginning to consolidate and mature as RP becomes a critical part of everyday business at many companies, particularly in the U.S.

Market Expansion

Unprecedented growth in revenues and unit sales is the big news of 1994. Revenue estimates from product sales and services grew by a whopping 99.7% in '94, making RP an estimated $198 million industry. If you add in the secondary tooling and duplicate parts that come as a result of RP, the industry mushrooms to an estimated $280 million, conservatively.

Unit sales grew by a portentous 84%, from 183 units sold in '93 to 336 sold in '94. In the first quarter of '95, the installed base of RP systems surpassed the 1,000 unit milestone.

Product sales. For most U.S. vendors, sales are on the rise. 3D Systems led the pack in 1994 with 94 systems sold, followed by Helisys which sold 76 systems. 3D's accumulated unit installations remains ahead of Helisys by a margin of more than 4 to 1.

Sales from Japanese system manufacturers have been slow. At the end of '94, the installed base of RP units in Japan represented an estimated 14% of the worldwide base of installations. However, Denken Engineering and Kira Corp. are beginning to move systems. These companies sell systems priced at about $75,000 and $140,000, respectively, which is much lower than the average cost ($530,000) of other Japanese RP systems.

System sales from European vendors are growing, with EOS leading the pack. EOS almost doubled their system sales in '94 (16 units) compared to the previous year (9 units). In the first six weeks of '95, the company reported sales of 9 stereolithography and selective laser sintering machines.

Globally, revenue from product sales grew by an estimated 59% compounded annually, which is 23 percentage points higher than what Wohlers Associates conservatively predicted for '94 at this time last year. In '93, system manufacturers sold an estimated $49.3 million worth of RP products (materials included). In '94, product sales added up to an estimated $78.6 million. Product sales for the last three years ('92-'94) has grown, on average, 35% per year.

3D Systems' installed base represents half of all systems installed. The remaining 15 system manufacturers share the other half. With an installed base approaching 500 systems, a major portion of 3D's revenue now comes from non-system sales such as resins, maintenance agreements and services from their technical centers. Maintenance agreements and services add up to about $14.5 million, which accounts for one-third of the company's '94 revenues.

Service business. The list of service bureaus (SBs) has grown from 105 to 155 in one year, according to CAD/CAM Publishing, Inc. (San Diego, CA) which publishes the Rapid Prototyping Report. That's an increase of 47.6 percent. Also, established SBs have expanded their operations by adding more machines and people as the demand for RP parts and related services have increased. All of this adds up to a business of considerable size.

Laserform, Inc. (Auburn Hills, MI) once again teamed with Wohlers Associates to determine the approximate size of the RP service business. Conservatively, we found that the worldwide RP part-making business has grown to an estimated $95 million in 1994. This figure does not take into account the secondary tooling and duplicate parts that result from RP patterns. Add in an estimated $83 million for this segment of the business. At this time last year, Laserform and Wohlers Associates estimated the '93 SB business to be in the $40-60 million range (excluding secondary tooling and duplicate parts), another conservative assessment.

Other revenues in the RP industry come from maintenance contracts and service agreements, educational programs, training and consulting services. In 1994, revenues from these sources added up to an estimated $24.8 million. Wohlers Associates did not break out this segment of the RP market prior to '94.

Forecast for 1995-96. The near-term future for RP is bright. Based on recent growth trends, Wohlers Associates forecasts the '95 market to exceed $318 million, up from 1994's $198 million. Furthermore, Wohlers Associates expects the market to reach $475 million in 1996. These forecasts include the sales of RP products and services, but they do not include revenues generated from secondary tooling and duplicate parts. Unit sales should hit the 1,500 mark by the end of '95, with as many as 540 units sold this year.

Present and Future Applications

The range of RP applications is impressive to say the least. Few technologies are versatile enough to aid the design and manufacture of jewelry, toys, hip joints, engine parts, architectural models, skeletal replicas for museums, art and mathematical models. In a few short years, RP has moved from being a cure for no known disease to a cure for every known disease.

Current U.S. applications. Nearly half of all RP users in the U.S. are from industries, such as ground transportation (24%) and aerospace (23%), according to a survey conducted by Denton and Company (Dearborn Heights, MI). The survey results are based on entries from 312 U.S. respondents. RP users that manufacture consumer electronics and business machines represent 14% and 11%, respectively.

All of the respondents indicated that they use RP for "visual and fit" modeling. RP has become particularly popular for creating patterns for many types of tooling. The survey results indicate that 40% use RP patterns for RTV silicon rubber tooling, 28% for epoxy tooling, and 15% for spray metal tooling. The remaining were split between investment casting (6%), sand casting (4%), EDM (3%), vacuum molding (2%), vacuum forming (1%), and other (1%).

Assembly testing. Early in the design of an assembly, RP permits you to check the fit of mating parts and how they perform in an assembly. As the complexity of assemblies increase, so does the defect rates of these assemblies. Consequently, RP will play an increasingly important role in the design and test of assemblies.

In short, RP can help you bridge engineering and manufacturing; help you achieve integrated product and process design; determine the manufacturability of a proposed design; verify your CAD database; create a path to fast tooling and metal castings; produce samples that can win big contracts; help your subcontractors submit lower quotes and deliver on time; justify the cost of CAD solid modeling; and, coupled with CAD, design iteratively, creating a high level of momentum and an unusual level of excitement among the design team. This combination of activity makes RP a lethal weapon for producing high quality products in the shortest time possible.

Desktop visualization. Interest in desktop RP is growing. Someday, it will become a sizable business. For now, however, it remains tiny, and this is why: Most companies that are offering small RP units are positioning them as aids for visualization and design verification. The idea is for the CAD user to produce a CAD model and then output a physical part. The benefit of such a device is obvious to engineers and designers, but that doesn't mean it is easy to justify.

Look at it from another point of view. RP for desktop visualization adds a new step to the design and manufacturing process. With this step comes capital equipment cost, maintenance, materials, and training. Also, this step could add time to the design process. While most engineers would agree that a 3D output device could help them get-it-right-the-first-time, this simply may not be apparent to those who approve the purchase of equipment.

Measuring the time it takes to produce tooling is straightforward. That's one reason why the use of RP is becoming so successful for this application. The difficulty in justifying the cost of RP for visualization lies with the difficulty in measuring design productivity. How does one measure the design process? When does it begin and when does it end? Because the process is hard to measure, expensive design aids can be difficult to justify.

As the cost of RP systems drop, so does the risk of buying them. At some price point, the risk disappears, making them easy to buy for any application, even visualization and design verification, but this is further into the future.

Other Observations

The shape of the RP industry is constantly changing as the base of installed RP technology users grows and demands faster, accurate and more reliable machines and materials. Over the past year, the industry has experienced many interesting changes. The following are a few examples.

RP popularization. RP is beginning to enter the mainstream. It already has in some companies. Meanwhile, many other companies have yet to try it, while still others have not heard of it. RP will have arrived when systems are integrated into businesses in the same way as CNC machines, which have indeed entered the mainstream. Unlike CNC machine installations, most RP units operate in service centers at both small and large companies; also the way in which jobs are processed is different compared to CNC.

Consolidation. Presently, the market is not big enough to support 16 system manufacturers. It's inevitable that companies and technologies will merge, change ownership or simply disappear. The acquisition of IBM's technology by Stratasys (Minneapolis, MN) is a case in point. In January of this year, Stratasys announced the purchase of the RP technology developed by the IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center (Yorktown Heights, NY). This technology heats and extrudes thermoplastic materials to form models and prototype parts, in a manner similar to Stratasys' fused deposition modeling (FDM) technology. In return, IBM became a significant shareholder in Stratasys. This is an excellent example of how U.S. competitors can join forces rather than resorting to action that often gets ugly.

Publicly-owned corporations. In October 1994, Stratasys announced an initial public offering of 1.2 million shares of common stock at a price of $5 per share. The stock is being traded on the NASDAQ stock market. Three system manufacturers based in the U.S. -- 3D Systems, Soligen and now Stratasys -- are now publicly owned corporations.

Cast metal parts. RP projects involving cast metal are becoming increasingly sophisticated. 3D Systems (Valencia, CA), for example, produced a 4-cylinder engine block casting, complete with cast-in water jackets and cored passageways, for Mercedes-Benz (Stuttgart, Germany) using their QuickCast process. The entire process took only five weeks, compared to 40-50 weeks using conventional methods. Soligen's Parts Now unit (Northridge, CA) produced a functional metal prototype of a complex engine component for Caterpillar in one week. Using Soligen's proprietary Direct Shell Production Casting (DSPC), Parts Now cast the part in A356 aluminum, heat treated it and delivered the part for installation on the engine in seven days.

Other developments. The following is a sampling of other '94 developments and events. o Sanders introduced a small RP system that takes advantage of ink jet technology.

o Solid Concepts (Valencia, CA) updated its popular Bridgeworks support structure software for stereolithography.

o Fockele und Schwarze (Borchen-Alfen, Germany) sold its first stereolithography system to Fraunhofer-Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation (IPA) (Stuttgart, Germany).

o DTM introduced fine nylon.

o Kira Corp. (Aichi Pref., Japan) began selling its Solid Center machine, which laminates paper sheets.

o Imageware (Ann Arbor, MI), Pogo International (College Station, TX) and XOX (Minneapolis, MN) each introduced an STL viewing and editing product.

o DTM received an R&D award from R&D Magazine. Stereolithography inventor Charles Hull received the Jacquard Award from the Numerical Controls Society.

o Cubital reduced the prices of its Solider 4600 and 5600 models.

o Stratasys began selling the FDM-1600, which accommodates ABS material.

o 3D Systems announced express mode and premium mode for its SLA-250.

o Materialise (Belgium) introduced a new version of its MAGICS support structure software for stereolithography.

o Soligen announced its Parts Now division.

o DTM and Cubital both formed user groups.

RP in Japan

Organizations in Japan and Europe are channeling talent and research funds into the development and application of rapid prototyping (RP) technologies. Japan has taken a long-range approach to understanding market needs and requirements while refining stereolithography.

Broad selection. Presently, a wider range of RP systems are available in Japan than in Europe and the U.S. combined. If you want to buy an RP system in Japan, you can select from 14 different systems. Eight of the systems are from Japanese manufacturers, while six are from U.S. and European manufacturers that have set up distributors in Japan. No other country in the world offers access to so many technologies. At the same time, fewer than 120 systems are in operation throughout the entire country. Furthermore, only one company in Japan, INCS, operates as many as three RP systems at one location. INCS is one of Japan's top service bureaus and is the distributor of 3D Systems' stereolithography products. Six companies in Japan run two RP systems each and all others have just one.

Japan's weak economy and its limited use of CAD solid modeling have been factors in slow system sales. In the U.S., CAD solid modeling is becoming accepted at many companies, but in Japan, solid modeling is only beginning to show up. This has and will continue to play a critical role in the growth of RP in Japan because you must have a digital model before you can produce an RP part. If you must first create a CAD model for the purpose of RP -- which is what many Japanese firms are attempting to do -- RP can be much too costly.

Service business. Compared to that in the U.S., the RP service business in Japan is small. Twelve service bureaus are doing a combined total of an estimated $11 million of revenue per year. Eleven of these 12 companies are producing a total of only about $5 million in revenues per year. That's less than $455,000 per service bureau, which is much less than SBs in the U.S. produce. Conservatively, each U.S. SB generated an estimated $1.47 million, on average, in 1994, according to figures generated by Laserform, Inc. (Auburn Hills, MI) and Wohlers Associates. This estimate includes only RP models, secondary tooling, and duplicate parts that were created as a result of the RP parts; nothing more. Over the past 12-18 months, RP users and producers in Japan have recognized the need to use RP to compliment and enhance the creation of molds and dies. Until '94, few in Japan tried to use RP for this purpose.

R&D focus. The U.S. dominates the CAD hardware and software market in Japan. This is a critical RP component that Japan would prefer to obtain from within its borders. A solid model database can serve as the core for many downstream engineering, documentation, prototyping and manufacturing functions, so CAD solid modeling has become a very important piece of the automation puzzle.

Few Japanese companies have embraced RP technology to the point of making it a regular activity. Most companies are using it on an experimental basis, even at sites that have had systems for two or more years. Some owners of RP equipment aren't even doing that. For the most part, Japanese user companies are still in a test and development phase.

Meanwhile, the Japanese are developing and refining RP technologies and resins at an impressive rate. Much of what is available from Japanese vendors meets or exceeds the capabilities of U.S. and European technologies. Interestingly, the Japanese vendors seem to be less concerned about system sales at this time and more occupied with enhancing the capabilities of their technologies, especially accuracy. They don't view their current line of RP systems as products, but rather as development systems. They see a need to refine their processes over time and work closely with their customers -- and their competitors -- to define and clearly understand market needs and requirements. The Japanese have taken a long-term perspective on the field of RP and they are financially supported by some of the largest companies in the world, such as Mitsubishi, NTT Data Communications and Sony Corp.

With the support of Japan's Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI), several companies in Japan have formed an organization called the Japan Association of Rapidprototyping Industry (JARI). As a government supported, industry-driven organization -- made up primarily of technology developers and RP system manufacturers -- JARI is attempting to develop, refine and reduce the cost of important elements of stereolithography. As part of this effort, MITI is providing 800 million yen (about $8.89 million) for four years for research and development. Presently, the U.S. supplies critical system components, such as lasers and galvanometers, but Japanese vendors would like to free themselves from paying a premium for these components and relying on the U.S. for them. The Japanese government is also providing a tax incentive for companies buying RP systems, a program proposed by the RP vendors. The tax incentive is an attempt to stimulate the purchase of RP systems by small and medium size companies.

RP in Europe

The RP picture in Europe is quite different. With the exception of Germany, most European countries are less focused on the development of new system technology. Most European programs concentrate on the application of existing technologies and on educational needs and opportunities. Europe has become a Mecca of research consortia. No other region in the world is performing such a high number of consortia activities, perhaps as many or more than the U.S. and Japan combined. This is due in large part to the availability of European Community (EC) funds which have become available over the past few years. An unprecedented level of cooperation among companies and countries has developed as the EC has loosened its purse strings.

Among the programs, facilities and research activities: the RP&T Consortium in Warwick, England; CREATE in Paris, France; ESSTIN and CNRS in Nancy, France; WISA in Germany; SINTEF in Norway; and INSTANTCAM, NOR-SLA, CARP, and EARP which involve several countries in Europe.

Brite EuRam and Esprit are two EC Directorates that are highly involved with RP. Brite focuses on Basic Research In TEchnology and funds most of the European RP projects at this time. Esprit is involved more on the computing side of engineering and manufacturing. The Eureka programme is supported jointly by the EC and national governments, whereas Brite and Esprit are funded exclusively by the EC.

CARP. Computer Aided Rapid Prototyping (CARP) is a three-year consortium (April '92-April '95) agreement which is supported by Europe's Eureka program. The consortium is funded by several million British pounds (8.9 MECU). The project focuses on integrating elements of CAD, CAE, RP, interfaces, working practices and model development. The consortium is led by Ricardo Consulting Engineers of the UK. Participants include DELCAM International (makers of the DUCT CAD/CAM software), University of Leeds, Webster Mouldings Ltd., CADDETC, and Magnesium Services Ltd. -- all of the UK. Other members include Volkswagen AG (Germany) and Dott. Vittorio Gilardoni SpA (Italy).

EARP. The EC-funded European Action on Rapid Prototyping (EARP) initiative is a three-year project formed to serve as a central forum for information exchange and cooperation and to establish new R&D areas in Europe. Coordinated by the Danish Technological Institute, EARP serves as the basis for interaction and integration of Brite EuRam projects on RP. In early 1995, the consortium consisted of 35 active partners from universities, research centres and private industry working on 17 programmes. One activity by EARP is the organization of conferences and exhibitions focusing on advances in medical modeling using RP. These events illustrate the level of interest in applying RP to medicine in Europe.

RP&T Consortium. The Rapid Prototyping & Tooling (RP&T) Consortium is housed at the Advanced Technology Centre (ATC) within the University of Warwick (Warwick, England). ATC has been working on rapid tooling for many years, before the RP&T Consortium was formed. The Consortium itself is a three-way partnership between the Rover Group, the University of Warwick and the Warwick Manufacturing Group. The Warwick Manufacturing Group is a collaboration of local manufacturing companies that was formed prior to the formation of the RP&T Consortium. An RP&T Club is also intertwined. The Club's role is to educate and disseminate information. As part of this mission, they conduct 25 seminars a year. The number of club members is now in the triple digits.

INSTANTCAM. This was a three-year project launched in June 1990 and was supported by the Brite EuRam program. The full name of the project was the Reduction of Design to Product Lead Time Through Instant Manufacturing of Models, Prototypes and Tools. The goal of the project was to improve and increase the use of RP technology. The project was a partnership of 11 organizations from five countries. Participants included the Danish Technological Institute, Danfoss, Black & Decker, Wilhelm Karmann, Biba Institute, Inst. Superior Tecnico, Raufoss, Helsinki University of Technology, SINTEF, E&D Design and Oy Saab-Valmet.

NOR-SLA. NOR-SLA was a two-year joint Nordic industrial research project. Beginning April 1990, it involved six participants from Denmark, five from Sweden, six from Norway, and one from Finland, including at least two INSTANTCAM participants. The full name of the project was Machining Data for Production of Stereolithography Models. The basic objectives were to perform research to determine how SLA models could be produced with the best possible dimensional accuracy and surface finish at the lowest possible cost. In October 1993, SINTEF (Norway) and 40 other companies and institutes within the Nordic region launched a new two-year Layer Manufacturing project.

University of Nottingham. Under the direction of Dr. Philip Dickens, the University of Nottingham has demonstrated that it is possible to build metal parts using welding technology and a multi-axis robot. In mid-1994, the university received a new eight-axis robot the size of an average American living room. The 3D welding project is being funded entirely by the EC Brite EuRam program in the amount of about 0.5 million pounds sterling ($0.8 million). Parts produced by this process have a rough and uneven surface finish and the shapes are basic, although they do show promise. Automobile engine parts, such as a thermostat housing, do not require a smooth surface finish. Critical regions, such as where parts mate, can be machined.

Fraunhofer. Some of the most impressive work is being conducted by the network of Fraunhofer institutes in Germany. As many as seven institutes of the Fraunhofer Society (FhG) are developing or working with RP technology in some way. At the center of this work is the WISA project. Its purpose is to: 1) develop 3D digitizing technologies for reverse engineering, 2) address software and data transfer issues using STEP, and 3) develop RP technologies for the production of metallic prototype parts and tools. Many of the institutes have been working in these areas, but little coordination existed among them. The WISA project attempts to create alliances among the seven institutes.

Fraunhofer-Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation (IPA) in Stuttgart is working in the CAD/STEP area; Fraunhofer-Institute for Applied Materials Research (IfaM) in Bremen is working on materials; and Fraunhofer-Institute for Production Technology (IPT) in Aachen is working on processes and machine technology. Other institutes involved in RP are the Fraunhofer-Institute for Chemical Technology (ICT), Fraunhofer-Institute for Computer Graphics (IGD), Fraunhofer-Institute for Laser Technology (ILT), and Fraunhofer-Institute for Production Systems and Design Technology (IPK).

One of the developments, Multiphase Jet Solidification (MJS), produces metallic and ceramic parts. IPA is working with IfaM on this project, and they hope to commercialize it over the next year or so. The basic idea of MJS is to extrude low viscosity materials through a jet, layer by layer. They've tried different materials in powder, pellet and bar form. Heating the material to above its solidification point causes the binder in the material to liquefy and the melted substance solidifies when it comes into contact with the previous layer. The result is a green part that requires debinding in an oven and sintering to final density or infiltration with another material. IPA has produced simple parts in stainless steel (316L), titanium, and alumina oxide. Incre Inc. (Corvallis, OR) and the University of California (Irvine) have demonstrated metal deposition techniques that resemble MJS. Incre has produced parts in tin and is now focusing on aluminum, which begins to melt at a higher temperature.

IPT is developing selective laser sintering (SLS) for the production of metal parts, an indirect method involving polymer-coated metal particles. The polymer serves as a binder which temporarily bonds together the metal material. This technique produces green parts which require burning out the polymer, sintering the metal and infiltrating another material such as copper for increased part density. This is similar to what DTM (Austin, TX) is developing and attempting to commercialize.

With IPA's assistance, the University of Stuttgart is establishing a special research center with the support of the German National Research Foundation. Participants will include nine institutes of the University of Stuttgart, an institute of the Technical University of Dresden and Daimler Benz AG. The three-year cooperative RP research agreement, which began in September 1994, involves organizational issues, business practices, costs, quality management, and information processing as they relate to product development using virtual reality, computer simulation and RP technologies. Other IPA activities include R&D in reverse engineering using touch-probe and optical sensors and metallic coating of plastic prototypes. IPA and IPT also participate in EARP.

With all of the RP activity in the U.S., it's easy to ignore what's going on outside our borders. If you take a look, you may be surprised by the number of activities and resources being spent on rapid prototyping (RP) programs in Japan and Europe.


How much more will RP develop? Expect RP to improve and become more cost effective over the next decade, not unlike the evolution of personal computing. In 1981, a PC offered performance of 0.3 million instructions per second (MIPS). A 486 PC offers 20 MIPS, while a Pentium offers 100. By 1996, the next generation will become available, offering 200 MIPS, according to Bill Gates of Microsoft. RP technology may not experience performance gains as dramatic as this, but we will see significant price/performance improvements over the coming years.

RP is indeed an exciting technology that is changing the way products are brought to market. That doesn't mean it's necessarily easy to integrate and justify today. As with most other sophisticated, computer-driven equipment, be prudent. As columnist Joel Orr puts it, automate the way porcupines make love -- very carefully. With adequate research, planning and cooperation from others, you too can be among the growing number of success stories in this fast-paced industry.

Acknowledgments: The author thanks David Tait of Laserform, Inc., for assisting with the RP service business revenue estimates. Thanks also to Karl Denton of Denton and Company, Stefan Noken of the Fraunhofer-Institute for Production Technology and Martin Geiger of the Fraunhofer-Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation for their cooperation.

Industry consultant Terry Wohlers works closely with organizations wanting to shorten product development time and improve quality using innovative tools, techniques and management strategies. He has counseled numerous corporations on issues related to the selection, installation and management of systems for rapid prototyping, reverse engineering and CAD/CAM/CAE. Terry is a founder and past chairman of the Rapid Prototyping Association of the Society of Manufacturing Engineers (RPA/SME) and has published 190 books, articles and technical papers on engineering and manufacturing automation.