The rapid prototyping (RP) industry certainly
had its share of challenges, disappointments and bad news in 2001 and
2002. Much of this suffering resulted from a reduction in product
development budgets in companies of all sizes and across many
industries. In spite of decreased spending by its customers, the RP
industry did not follow their lead. Instead, the industry has continued
its research and development of new products, processes, materials and
An impressive number of R&D projects are
underway in organizations of all sizes around the world. This is truly
the good news of the past year, for it demonstrates the commitment to
and viability of RP technologies. With some of the funding for these
efforts coming from private investors and government agencies, it is
clear that those outside of the RP industry also believe in the
technology. These investments in RP development promise to yield
dividends well into the future.
To illustrate how much good news came from the past one to two years,
below is a sampling of the R&D projects going on in the U.S.,
Europe, Asia and other parts of the world.
The Department of Defense (DoD) is funding Extrude Hone's ProMetal
division (Irwin, PA) to develop and integrate its metal inkjet printing
process for the repair and replacement of parts for navy ships and
submarines. The Office of Naval Research is sponsoring the $10.8 million
project. In all, more than $20 million has been committed to ProMetal
R&D in partnerships with DoD, MIT, the National Science Foundation,
the Fraunhofer Society and several corporations.
The largest RP-related program within DoD and its Defense Advanced
Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is the Mesoscopic Integrated Conformal
Electronics (MICE) program. Its goal is to develop direct-write
technologies for rapid prototyping and manufacturing of miniaturized
mesoscale electronics on any surface. Optomec (Albuquerque, NM), the
manufacturer of Laser Engineer Net Shaping (LENS), is working under the
MICE program to develop Maskless Mesoscale Materials Deposition (M3D).
Its objective is to produce a process that permits the manufacture of
very compact and lightweight electronic systems. The four-year program
is valued at $9 million.
This company based in Burbank, CA is commercializing technology
developed at the University of Southern California. The process, named
Electrochemical Fabrication (EFAB), is based on electroplating
techniques for producing metal parts from the micron scale to the
mesoscale of a few millimeters. In July 2002, the company announced that
it had raised $5.7 million in funding. This is in addition to the $12.5
million raised in 2001.
Less than a year after the announcement at EuroMold 2001, Concept Laser
GmbH, a Hofmann company in Germany, has six machines running: two
in-house and four at beta customer sites. The process uses a YAG laser
for building 100 percent dense parts in stainless steel powder. The
technology combines laser sintering, laser marking and laser machining
in a single machine.
Speed Part AB
This Swedish company has developed and patented a new RP technology. The
process uses infrared lamps to sinter layers of plastic powder through a
mask printed on a glass plate. The fusing process for each layer takes
about one second, and the entire cycle time for a layer is estimated at
just 10 seconds. It is anticipated that this machine will sell for
one-third the cost of existing laser-based sintering machines.
This company, also of Sweden, is developing an approach called Electron
Beam Melting (EBM). EBM uses an electron beam gun to melt metal powder.
Unlike current sintering systems, EBM delivers the direct fabrication of
steels to 99.5 percent density. The machine is named the EBM S12 and it
sells for $500,000.
At EuroMold 2001, Envision Technologies of Germany showed its Perfactory
RP machine. The technology uses acrylate photopolymer and Digital Light
Processing (DLP) technology from Texas Instruments. The projected image
from the DLP light source represents the cross-section that is being
solidified in photopolymer. Visible light is projected from underneath,
so the build platform is above the build area instead of below. The
machine images an entire layer at once for layer cycle times of 10 to 15
seconds. The approximate price of Perfactory is $50,000.
This Israeli company is developing a machine that laminates thin layers
of plastic to form parts. The small desktop machine uses a knife mounted
to an x-y plotter mechanism to cut sequential layers from a spool of
plastic material. The layers are bonded with a solvent. The manufacturer
expects to offer PVC, ABS and polycarbonate.
This company, whose full name is Beijing Yinhua Laser Rapid Prototypes
Making and Mould Technology Company Ltd., was launched from Tsinghua
University of Beijing, China. The company-university effort is
developing several systems, including machines for medical applications.
One machine builds porous scaffold structures for tissue engineering and
cell generation. Two years of testing on 105 rabbits and 42 dogs have
shown compelling results. Separately, Tsinghua University is developing
a process and stereolithography system for the creation of clear plastic
aligners to straighten human teeth. The process is similar to the
Invisalign process from Align Technology here in the U.S.
Shanghai Union Technology
This Chinese company is developing and selling three stereolithography
machines that differ in laser power and build volume. Another class of
machine from the company is a concept modeler that uses a 100-watt short
arc mercury lamp to cure resin that is produced in-house.
Wuhan Binhu Mechanical & Electrical
Huazhong University of Science & Technology in Whuhn, Hubei, China,
launched this company. The organization is developing and selling
machines that are similar to laser sintering from 3D Systems (Valencia,
CA) and EOS and LOM from Cubic Technologies (Carson, CA). The university
RP center, consisting of 120 people, is likely the largest RP research
and development group in the world.
Other highlights of the past year include
(listed at random):
Objet Geometries (Israel) continues to
develop its PolyJet 3-D printing process and the photopolymers used
in the machine.
3D Systems (Valencia, CA) is developing
and commercializing an improved version of its Multi-Jet Modeling (MJM)
technology. The 3-D printer, named InVision si2, deposits and
hardens acrylic photopolymer in a process that is similar to Objet's
EOS of Germany continues to push the
envelope with large build volumes and dual lasers to improve build
speed. The introduction of the company's 20-micron metal powders has
captured the attention of many.
Solidica (Ann Arbor, MI) is developing
and commercializing Ultrasonic Consolidation, a process that uses
ultrasonic welding to produce aluminum parts.
Stratasys (Eden Prairie, MN) is
developing and testing its Titan machine technology for processing
high-temperature mater-ials, including polyphenylsulfone.
Japanese stereolithography maker CMET has
developed and introduced the Soliform Multi 600 and Soliform Multi
1000 products that offer either dual or quad lasers to improve build
Z Corp. (Burlington, MA) announced ZCast
for printing foundry tooling used to produce metal castings. The
process is fast (one to two days) and the castings are acceptable
for many prototyping applications.
AeroMet (Eden Prairie, MN) is developing
a process called Laser Additive Manufacturing (LAM) that uses powder
titanium and a CO2 laser to form near shape parts. The company is
focusing almost exclusively on the production of large titanium
parts for the aerospace industry.
SRI International (Menlo Park, CA) is
developing a process called Direct Photo Shaping. It is mechanically
similar to stereolithography, but uses a deformable mirror device (DMD),
instead of a laser, to expose an entire layer at one time.
CAM-LEM (Cleveland, OH) is developing a
lamination process that builds ceramic and metal parts. Much of the
work on the technology, which is similar to LOM, was completed at
Case Western Reserve University.
Materialise of Belgium is pushing the
limit on the size of stereolithography. Its largest machine has a
build capacity equivalent to five SLA 7000 machines.
Therics (Princeton, NJ) is using its 3DP
license from MIT to manufacture medical products ranging from
time-release medications to resorbable scaffolding, and implants for
cartilage, tendon and bone substitutes.
MicroTEC of Germany is developing
manufacturing processes used to produce miniature parts in
photopolymer. The processes are offered under the RMPD (Rapid Micro
Product Development) trade name.
The POM Group (Auburn Hill, MI) is
commercializing direct Metal Deposi-tion (DMD), a process that uses
a CO2 laser and powder feed system to produce metal parts. The
University of Michigan completed much of the work under a contract
from the U.S. Department of Energy.
Solidscape (Merrimack, NH) continues to
refine and commercialize its inkjet printing technology for
producing small but intricate patterns. Interpore Cross
International, a U.S. medical device company, is operating 32 ma-chines
from Solidscape to produce investment casting patterns for titanium
F&S GmbH of Germany is developing and
commercializing a process called Selective Laser Melting (SLM) that
is similar to laser sintering. MCP - HEK Tooling GmbH is marketing
and servicing the equipment.
In 2001, 3D Systems (Valencia, CA)
acquired French RP machine developer OptoForm SARL. OptoForm's
machine technology uses photocurable pastes and can process
ceramics, metals and other composite materials. OptoForm LLC, a
company formed by 3D Systems and DSM Somos (New Castle, DE)
continues to develop the technology in California in cooperation
with several partner test sites.
Generis GmbH, also of Germany, is
commercializing its GS 1500 system. The machine uses wide-area
inkjet printing to bond layers of sand into large sand molds and
cores for metal castings.
Unirapid of Japan offers a
stereolithography machine that uses a lamp and fiber optics to
deliver the UV light.
If only all of the development projects could
be discussed and listed. With so many exciting developments underway,
the future of rapid prototyping is bright. Indeed, the industry is
certain to thrive and expand over time. The ultimate challenge will be
to determine which developments are most likely to succeed and how that
success translates into new opportunities for your company.