Rapid Prototyping in 2006

Incremental change. Is that all that can be expected of the rapid prototyping industry?

"Perspectives" is a column co-authored by Terry Wohlers. The following was published 
in the January/February 2001 issue of Time-Compression Technologies magazine.

Throughout the past three years, there have been many positive developments, but few major breakthroughs. From this narrow slice of history, a fair conclusion would be that RP is condemned to small, incremental changes during the next six years. However, when the industry is viewed through a larger historical window, major developments become obvious:

  • The birth of desktop printers.

  • The rise and fall of equipment vendors.

  • An 11-fold increase in the number of RP machines installed worldwide.

In analyzing the computer industry, Bill Gates once said that people tend to over estimate what will happen in three years and underestimate what will occur in six. We hold the same theory for the RP industry.

What will the next six years yield? Here are the predictions from our "Perspective."

10 Predictions for the Future

1. The "chasm" is crossed. The RP industry will have built a bridge across the chasm. This gap in the technology lifecycle adoption curve is a danger zone created by the difference in decision-making style between risk-taking early adopters and the pragmatic early majority. Until the chasm is bridged, technology cannot gain the momentum that propels it into wide use, major technological advances and the potential for cost reductions.

Each of the remaining nine predictions either results from or helps to bridge the chasm.

2. A 24 percent decline in system manufacturers. Survival for today's 21 RP machine manufacturers is not guaranteed. Several are on life support and are unlikely to sustain existence in their present form. Nine of the current vendors will fail or be acquired by another organization.

In November 2000, Japanese RP machine maker Teijin Seiki announced that it would acquire NTT Data CMET, the largest Japanese maker of RP machines.

Around the same time, Helisys decided to call it quits after nine years of manufacturing and selling Laminated Object Manufacturing (LOM) machines. Sadly, these two companies will no longer be with us - companies that helped shape the RP industry. Others will follow.

Although the going will be tough, four start-up companies will throw their hats into the competitive arena, bringing the total to sixteen.

3. A Fortune 500 company explodes onto the stage. As the chasm is crossed, the RP industry will become too attractive for major players to ignore. 3D Systems may have enabled this development by paving the way for Canon. On June 14, 2000, 3D Systems announced that Canon Sales Company would market ThermoJet systems in Japan. Canon may be using this distribution strategy to survey the RP landscape to plan its entry into the world of 3-D printing. Whether it's Canon, Hewlett-Packard or Fuji-Xerox, an established company will manufacture, distribute and support a 3-D printer.

4. A common tool in education. A significant plunge in the price of an RP machine will make it possible for even the most budget-strapped schools to claim ownership. With special educational offers, hundreds of public and private schools throughout the U.S. will purchase an inexpensive, but impressively functional, 3-D printer.

It is a common practice of large companies to seed the educational market with their technology to make it the tool of choice. Perhaps Canon will lead the way.

5. Intolerance for the three H's. Hazards, hassles and headaches will not be tolerated. Partial solutions, dangerous chemicals, challenging operations and high maintenance costs will not be acceptable in an RP evaluation. Ease of use and low cost of operations will be key decision-making factors, and the manufacturers will have responded to the demand.

As alternative methods of RP develop and mature, companies will phase out established processes in favor of machines that are safe, reliable and affordable to own and maintain.

6. The Internet takes hold of RP transactions. Overburdened project engineers will not have the luxury of spending days to secure quotes, outsource prototypes and manage the supply chain. Using the wide-reaching power of the Internet, corporations will gain confidence that they are receiving the best value for their money. Companies will embrace custom e-commerce solutions that integrate with their internal accounting and ERP systems to minimize redundant entry of transactional data. These Internet tools will permit them to work with internal and external customers and service providers in a way that reduces time and effort.

7. In living color. The preference for color is obvious; color photography, color charts and graphs, color monitors and color CAD models. Color enhances the communication potential for RP. Boring, lifeless, bland prototypes will not be acceptable when brilliant reds, blues and greens are available. However, for this to happen, the penalty in dollars and time must become nearly non-existent.

Color is already being used in an interesting fashion. The results of finite element analysis are being applied to RP using Z Corp.'s Z402C color 3-D printer. The effect is an easily interpreted FEA stress plot.

8. Digital supercedes physical. Already, digital models (e.g., CAD solid modeling) have reduced the need for physical models and prototype parts. Today, companies routinely produce multiple versions of a new design, digitally, before it is fabricated. As CAD and computer simulation tools improve, and as product development teams are forced to further reduce time-to-market, the number of prototypes will shrink.

However, the diminishing use will apply only to the current scope of prototyping. As technology advances and new applications arise, the overall use of these additive processes will increase.

Like the fast and inexpensive document printers that derailed the idea of the paperless office, 3-D printers will find their way into companies of all shapes and sizes. As the investment - of both time and money - to produce these models drops to an insignificant amount, organizations will be printing an astonishing number of models for a wide range of alternative purposes.

9. Unthinkable applications emerge. The vast array of potential applications is exciting. Organizations will rely on methods of RP for sculpture, architecture, mold flow analysis, molecular modeling and a wide array of other interesting and unusual uses.

Breakthrough applications have already emerged. RP has been used in forensics to solve murder mysteries; it is a critical component in creating "invisible" braces for orthodontics; and it has helped those in dire medical situations.

Although there is movement in this direction, some of the most exciting applications have yet to be conceived.

10. RP translates to Rapid Production. Perhaps solid freeform fabrication is a better term to describe the class of technology that we today refer to as RP. Indeed, rapid prototyping is the single largest application of this technology, but it can extend well beyond prototyping.

In six years, companies will routinely use methods of RP for the production of manufactured parts.

Investigations are already under way for the appropriate use of RP to manufacture relatively small parts in volumes of hundreds and even thousands.

Mass customization - should it ever be realized - will most likely rely on some form of the technology that we know today as rapid prototyping.

Conclusion

Fasten your seat belts and hang onto your hats. It will be a bumpy, yet exciting ride.

Consider the transitions from NC to CNC, from mainframe to notebook and from the Model T to the 2001 model year. It didn't happen in a few years, it took decades. Break any one of these technologies down to six-year increments and you will find major advances.

History will repeat itself in the RP industry. In the year 2006, what is commonly accepted and practiced today will be long forgotten. While incremental changes will continue, expect and demand major leaps forward.

Share Your Feedback On This "Perspective" With Us! Send your opinions, questions and comments to christina@ctipublishing.com.