1997: A Year of News, Surprises and Challenges

Published in Prototyping Technology International '98, UK & International Press Copyright 1998
by Terry T. Wohlers

1997 was an interesting year for the design and prototyping industry, seasoned with company mergers, sales growth in new regions of the world, and financial challenges at service bureaux and RP system manufacturers

The CAD/CAM industry is in a period of consolidation. In recent months, Solidworks Corp and Deneb were purchased by Catia developer Dassault. Later in the year Parametric Technology Corp purchased Computervision, and Intergraph and EDS Unigraphics merged their CAD/CAM businesses. All this caught many of us by surprise and many are wondering what the future will hold for these companies and their products.

Meanwhile, some of the major CAD companies are shifting away from the ACIS modeling kernel from Spatial Technology in favor of the Parasolid kernel from EDS Unigraphics. For years, an impressive number of established CAD vendors chose to use Spatial’s modeling technology. When Intergraph and EDS Unigraphics announced the merger of their product families, Intergraph announced it was planning to integrate Parasolid into Solid Edge version 5.0, which is expected to ship in the first half of this year. EDS is the owner and developer of Parasolid, so the move makes sense.

Bentley Systems has also dropped ACIS in favor of UG’s Parasolid technology for its new version of Microstation Modeler, which will be available early this year. Computervision, before being acquired by PTC, chose to use Parasolid in its new DesignWave solid modeler. And the popular SolidWorks software has had Parasolid at its core from day one. Engineering Automation Report claims that Parasolid is much faster than ACIS for some complex surface geometry tasks. Autodesk’s AutoCAD and Mechanical Desktop, Applicon’s Bravo, Baystate’s CADKEY, 3D/Eye’s TriSpectives, and Ashlar’s Vellum 3D are among those staying with ACIS. Currently, there are more than 870,000 ACIS seats compared with an estimated 60,000 Parasolid seats, according to David Prawel, vice-president of business development at Spatial Technology. Spatial’s strategy has been to form relationships with companies whose software ships in high volume, Prawel explained. Currently, the company estimates that 74 per cent of all solid modeling seats are ACIS-based.

RP mergers and closures

Last year, as many as 19 system manufacturers worldwide struggled to achieve or maintain profitability. 3D Systems acquired the stereolithography business of EOS, and Personal Modeler maker BPM Technology closed its doors. Helisys formed a sales agreement to distribute Sanders Prototype ModelMaker product. Helisys announced as well that it would explore merger or acquisition opportunities. Cubital CEO Yehudah Baron also said his company would entertain acquisition, merger, or investment opportunities. Other changes are likely in the coming months as system manufacturers fight for new business in a market that is not big enough to support them all.

Over the past year, stock prices of publicly owned RP system manufacturers have not been strong. Poor revenues and profits from product sales and services at these companies have kept stock prices low. Until manufacturers can consistently post profitable quarters, RP will remain a bear market for investors.

1997 is the first year in the history of RP that the growth of service bureaux (SBs) has tapered off, particularly in the USA. Profit margins continue to shrink among established SBs as start-up companies enter the market with rock-bottom prices – their only means of gaining new business. SBs formally competed on quality and lead time, but neither are distinguishing factors as they once were.

Growth into countries

Even though system manufacturers and SBs are struggling in the USA, RP continues to expand into countries that were once slow to embrace the technology. Most notably, organizations in regions such as Canada, Italy, UK, Hong Kong, Taiwan, India and Malaysia are buying systems like never before. In the future, expect countries such as Russia, Spain, Finland, Sweden, Brazil and China to adopt the technology more aggressively than in the past.

Tsinghua University in Beijing, China, is developing and commercializing RP systems that are similar to stereolithography (SL), Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM), and Selective Laser Sintering (SLS). Meanwhile, Kinergy of Singapore is moving ahead with its Zippy paper lamination system, technology that was originally developed at a university in China. Its newest and largest system, which was shown at the German EuroMold exhibition last December, enables its users to build ‘wood’ parts as large as 1,180 ¥ 730 ¥ 550mm.

Kinergy and Japanese manufacturer Kira Corp, with its Solid Center paper lamination product, have begun to sell their systems in Europe. Meanwhile, EOS is selling its EOSINT machines in Japan. Companies in Japan are beginning to implement CAD solid modeling in big numbers, yet RP unit sales and applications lag far behind those in the USA.

3D printers for modeling

Actua 2100 from 3D Systems and Genisys from Stratasys are interesting products, but they have been slow to meet the expectations of their users and producers. System reliability has plagued both, coupled with prices that many feel are much too high for the design market.

Newcomer Z Corp is receiving a great deal of attention with its lightning fast Z402 product. Not only can it build concept models many times faster than its competition, it can slice large STL files in seconds. Still, at $57,000, it may be priced higher than most companies are willing to pay for a 3D printer. The dilemma is that it is risky for companies such as Z Corp to sell systems at dramatically lower prices before a much larger market develops. For the near-term, buyers will have no choice but to pay the $45,000 to $65,000 prices, which in turn will restrict growth of 3D printing for concept modeling and visualization.

Rapid tooling

The list of proposed RT developments continues to grow. Examples are CEMCOM, Dynamic Tooling, ExpressTool and ExtrudeHone. Each approach comes with a unique set of limitations, yet each promises to reduce the time it takes to produce prototype tooling. Apart from ExtrudeHone, these companies use a pattern to produce core and cavity mold inserts. None of the ones mentioned here have been fully commercialized and their developers are somewhat reluctant to say exactly how they work.

None of the new RT approaches offer the choice of material, work volume or accuracy of CNC machining. What is more, these new processes may also have difficulty competing on speed as users of CNC streamline and standardize methods of machined tooling. Still, it is interesting to watch these developments unfold, and if one of them becomes a hit, it could do for injection mold tooling what RP has done for prototyping.

Challenges for the future

Many agree that RP must cost less before it will penetrate deeper and wider in manufacturing companies worldwide. For this to occur, the RP system manufacturers may need to re-engineer their products to reduce manufacturing costs and strengthen their marketing and sales efforts. This puts them in a difficult situation because these efforts are expensive and system manufacturers are being pressured to reduce costs. No one knows the solution, but perhaps we can somehow learn from history. Decades ago, there were many more automobile manufacturers than there are today. In the USA, the big three (as we know them today) developed and survived, and today they are large and strong. On a smaller scale, the same evolution might occur in the RP industry, especially given the financial, technical and market challenges ahead. More changes will likely occur sooner rather than later, so get set for another exciting year.