Has Anything Changed in Ten Years?

The Rapid Prototyping Association (RPA) of the Society of Manufacturing Engineers (SME) celebrates its tenth anniversary this year. Since the inception of this organization, much has changed. And yet, many things remain the same.

"Perspectives" is a column co-authored by Terry Wohlers. The following was published 
in the January/February 2002 issue of Time-Compression Technologies magazine.

Reflecting on the past in the context of the present illustrates how far the industry has come and how far it has to go. Eleven years ago, a group of fourteen individuals, representing both industry and academia, founded the first RP association. The group's first meeting, in September, 1992 was in Milpitas, CA. The meeting coincided with Management Roundtable's Fourth International Conference on Desktop Manufacturing.

One of the first orders of business was selecting an appropriate name for the newly organized association. Some of the names considered were: American Society of Advanced Prototypers (ASAP), World Association of Rapid Manufacturing (WARM), World Association of Rapid Prototyping (WARP), Rapid Prototyping Society (RPS), and Rapid Prototyping Association (RPA). Given the warping of parts that occurred with SL in its early years, the group unanimously decided against WARP. From the remaining options, the founders selected RPA.

In November, 1992, several of the founding members gathered at SME's Autofact 1992 in Detroit's Cobo Hall to meet with and consider three organizations that proposed to adopt the new association and serve as its parent. The members selected SME as the clear choice. SME's Executive Committee approved the formation of the Rapid Prototyping Association of the Society of Manufac-turing Engineers (RPA/SME) in April 1993, and the SME Board of Directors approved the decision in May. The first meeting of the RPA/SME Board of Advisors was held in Dearborn, MI in May, 1993. All of the fourteen founding members served on the board the first year (a 1993 photograph of nine of the fourteen founders can be viewed at http://wohlersassociates.com/founders.html).

Other countries followed the lead of RPA/SME with RP associations of their own. Among them were Finland, France, Italy, Japan, South Africa, and the U.K. Yet, RPA/SME continues to lead the way as the largest and one of the most active RP associations in the world.

One of RPA/SME's first activities was an important meeting with Dr. Mary Good, then Under Secretary for Technology at the U.S. Department of Commerce. Bud Brown, then of Gillette, Allan Lightman, then of the University of Dayton, Mike McEvoy of Baxter Healthcare, and myself (Terry Wohlers) met with Dr. Good in February, 1994 in her Washington office. The purpose of the meeting was to convey the need to accelerate the development and application of RP technology in the U.S. It was felt that the U.S. was at risk of losing its grasp on the technology. On that day, the same four individuals also met with officials from the Department of Commerce's National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) to communicate the importance of RP.

It is hard to know the real impact of these meetings. However, it is known that countless organizations from across the U.S. have since received millions of dollars for RP-related R&D from several agencies in Washington. It is impossible to trace this funding to these meetings, but RPA/SME believes that it had a strong influence on the outcome.

What Has Changed Since 1993?

In the years that followed the creation of RPA/SME and the meeting with Dr. Good, the RP industry has grown and matured. In 1993, RP system manufacturers sold 157 machines worldwide to bring the total number of machines to more than five hundred. In 2003, sales are expected to exceed fourteen hundred units. (An official estimate will be published in Wohlers Report 2003.). Through 2001, more than eight thousand machines had been sold. Sales of RP products and services in 1993 were an estimated $99.3 million, according to Wohlers Associates, Inc. One year ago, sales for 2003 were forecast at $590 million, as published in Wohlers Report 2002.

In 1993, eleven companies manufactured and sold RP machines. Four were from the U.S., four from Japan, and one each from Germany and Israel. Last year, twenty-eight manufacturers were in the business of producing and selling RP machines. Eleven were from the U.S.; seven from Japan; four from Germany; three from China; and one each from Singapore, Sweden, and Israel.

Worldwide, about eighty companies operated as RP service providers in 1993. At the end of 2001, an estimated 397 service providers were in place, according to CAD/CAM Publishing. Increasing competition is not the only change for the service bureaus; they also have faced price erosion. A $1,000 prototype in 1993 now sells for as little as $150 to $250.

Through the end of 1993, an estimated thirty-eight universities, government laboratories and corporations around the globe had researched or developed some aspect of RP technology. Through the end of last year, a conservative estimate of more than five hundred organizations worldwide had developed some facet of RP equipment, software, or materials technology.

Challenges in 1993

In 1993, the RP industry faced a daunting list of challenges. At Autofact 1993, a presentation titled "The Top Ten Challenges for the RP Industry" highlighted the following:

10. Do not use a screwdriver when a chisel works better, the point being that it is important to choose the correct tool for the job. With advances and developments in RP technology, selecting the right tool can be even more difficult today.

9. Produce a truly push-button system. This was a goal stated by Dr. Paul Jacobs, then with 3D Systems (Valencia, CA) - a provider of solid imaging products and solutions for the reduction of time and cost in designing products. Ten years later, the goal has yet to be realized.

8. Build metal parts and tools directly. We have experienced some impressive progress throughout the past few years, but many would argue that the development of machines that produce metal parts leaves room for improvement.

7. Accept smooth surface data from the CAD systems. RP systems still do not accept mathematically smooth surface data such as a NURBS model. Fortunately, the cost and performance of desktop computers have improved so much that it is no longer a problem to reduce the triangular facet size in STL models to the point at which the surfaces appear smooth.

6. RP vendors must become fiscally sound. Today, most companies in the business of manufacturing RP systems continue to struggle.

5. Improve the price/performance ratio. Vendors continue to introduce new machines that give customers a bigger bang for the buck. Many customer prospects have voiced their views on the idea of a low-cost machine. To some, low cost means $20,000. To others, it means $2,000. We have yet to reach either milestone, although we are closing in on the first one.

4. Educate the thousands of small companies across America. One would expect that most small companies have been exposed to RP throughout the past ten years. It is hard to imagine an engineer or designer that is not familiar with it. For whatever reason, it is believed that most small companies have not taken the time or made the effort to really understand how they might benefit from the technology and where it is headed.

3. Dispel the myths of RP. We tend to cling to the past and use outdated information as justification to disregard new ideas and technologies. For example, it is not unusual for people to point to inferior material, poor surface finish, and inaccuracy as reasons why they are not using the technology. In many cases, improvements in these areas make RP a suitable option for these same companies.

2. Watch the foreign RP system manufacturers. Competition is healthy, and foreign competition is no exception. U.S. machine manufacturers were at risk in 1993 and continue to be at risk today. If they do not render their own technologies obsolete, foreign competitors will. The U.S. could once again lose a strategic technology that it pioneered.

1. Expand the use of CAD solid modeling. From the beginning, this has been a major gating factor in the use of RP technology. Growth in solid modeling has been impressive throughout the past decade, and RP has been riding this wave. Still, the market penetration of solid modeling is less than 50 percent (some believe it is just 25 percent to 30 percent), so this presents opportunities for both the manufacturers of CAD and RP systems.

Most of these 1993 challenges remain as today's top challenges for the RP industry. One of the conclusions at this Autofact 1993 presentation was that for every individual that understands the potential of RP, there are a dozen that do not. Sadly, this still may be true today. From our perspective, this continues to be the biggest obstacle in the future of RP.

The U.S. launched the first RP association, and, since that time, the technology and its application have improved. Unit sales and revenues have grown, and more companies are in the RP business. Cost structures have changed, and a countless number of R&D projects associated with the technology have been started and completed. Even with these advances and developments, many facets of this exciting industry remain unchanged.