Obstacles to RP's Growth

Rapid prototyping is not immune to the wide ranging obstacles that limit the growth of new products and technology.

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

RP's growth has been frustratingly slow. It remains a tool of the few, not of the masses. Yet, those who have had powerful results with RP find it unimaginable that everyone is not using the technology. So, how is it that so few have used and benefited from RP?

Rapid prototyping is not immune to the obstacles that exist for any product, technology or industry. These barriers come in many forms. Some are technical, while others are human, organizational, cultural or economic. Each has a role in suppressing RP's growth. But, which are the most significant in preventing RP from spreading wider and deeper into organizations of all sizes?

1. Early adopters are few and far between.
The vast majority of people and companies prefer technology and applications that are fully developed and mature; in other words, without risk. In Geoffrey Moore's books, Inside the Tornado and Crossing the Chasm, he notes that technology enthusiasts and early adopters represent a mere 16 percent of the market for a new class of product. This means that 84 percent of all buyers wait until the product has been fully developed and refined. Some believe that RP has penetrated little, if any, of this 84 percent. According to Moore, this is a strong indication that people perceive RP as being unstable, unreliable and inefficient.

2. Adoption of CAD solid modeling.
Growth of solid modeling has been remarkable throughout the recent past. For example, SolidWorks' unit sales rose from 41,000 seats at the end of 1999 to more than 66,000 seats through the end of 2000 - a growth rate of nearly 61 percent. Still, fewer than 20 percent of mechanical CAD users employ solid modeling, according to consulting and publishing firm Cyon Research. The future, however, looks bright. With speedier computers and improved software, we can expect continued double-digit growth over the next few years. In the meantime, the lack of solid modeling installations limits RP's expansion because CAD solid models fuel the use of RP.

3. Computer-based modeling and prototyping.
Computer modeling, such as CAD solid modeling, is needed to help expand the RP market. Interestingly, it also is a factor that will increasingly limit RP's growth. As 3-D modeling and simulation software tools improve, companies will rely more on computer models and less on physical models. In most cases, physical models will not disappear altogether, but companies are trying to reduce the frequency of their use to shrink product development time and cost.

4. Too costly.
A common misconception is that RP is expensive. Depending upon the situation, this can be true. Yet, there are scores of applications where RP is a less expensive solution. When time is added into the equation, the comparative expense can be drastically lower. This barrier to growth will continue until the perception is changed or system costs drop dramatically. Until the market expands to tens of thousands of users, the cost for machines, maintenance, replacement parts and materials will remain relatively high and continue to support the belief that it is not affordable.

5. Economic downturn.
The economy in Japan during the last several years has not worked in its favor. That might explain, in part, why 3-D Systems and Stratasys have each sold about twice as many systems worldwide as all Japanese RP machine manufacturers combined. Economic conditions in the manufacturing sector have stifled new product development and capital expenditures here in the U.S. throughout most of 2001. This has made it more difficult for RP machine manufacturers in the U.S. to sell systems and related products and services. Business at most RP service providers declined early this year and has shown little improvement.

6. Outdated information.
Once a determination has been made that a technology is not quite ready, evaluation ceases for the majority of potential buyers. Busy with the crises and challenges of the job, an external force is required to initiate a re-evaluation. Often, this force comes from the increased adoption of the technology and the resulting competitive threat. Until the threat is felt, old information contorts the view of RP technology.

Some believe that RP machines do not build accurate parts. This was true in the distant past, but is no longer a valid statement. They may not match that of some manufacturing processes, but in many cases, it is not required. RP machines build parts that are accurate enough for many modeling and prototyping applications.

"The material is brittle" is another falsehood. Originating with the resins of the late 1980s and early 1990s that were brittle and weak, this perception lingers. In the past decade RP materials have improved dramatically. Unfortunately, these first generation materials come to mind among those who have not stayed informed.

7. Resistance to change.
It is surprising how people cling to the past and avoid change. Indeed, old habits die hard. Supported by the lack of adoption, it is safe for companies to continue developing products in the same manner that they have used for years. For change to occur, there has to be a stimuli. For many companies, change happens when there are no alternatives, turning to RP only when it is the last remaining option. This positive experience often converts these non-users into believers that RP can and should be a part of the product development process. But for every one of these converts, there are at least 10 others that do not make this company-changing discovery.

8. Risk is a four-letter word.
Since the majority has not adopted the technology, RP is perceived to be risky. It can be, but only if you don't fully understand the options. If you're a candidate for owning equipment, it's important that you research the products and know your need for materials, capacity and so on. For many companies, it makes sense to buy models and prototype parts from a service provider. In any case, many companies see the "risk" factor as an obstacle.

9. RP companies are small.
The largest company, 3D Systems, employs fewer than 500 people and generates about $110 million annually. What's more, 3D Systems is 2.5 times bigger than other RP machine manufacturers. Limited resources means limited market penetration. The size of these companies also reduces the likelihood of one of them developing an ultra low-cost machine - one that might reach new markets and industries and thousands of new users. The cost of developing a machine that would sell for $10,000 or less is high, and small companies are not willing to accept this risk. The small size of these companies also limits marketing efforts, impeding industry awareness.

10. Lack of awareness.
Most engineering and manufacturing professionals know of RP, but many are not fully aware of its power and implications. During the closing industry panel discussion at SME's Rapid Prototyping & Manufacturing 2001 conference, two expert panelists firmly stated that the lack of awareness of the technology and its benefits is the number one cause for slow growth. Even in companies that use RP, there are large pockets of employees that are both unaware and uninterested in RP. It's difficult to determine the magnitude of this obstacle, but it's not hard to find potential candidates in companies that could or should be using RP.

So there you have it: ten reasons not to use RP - logical justifications that are easy to accept. These are being used everyday throughout the U.S. and around the globe. Until these obstacles are overcome, RP will experience only moderate growth. This is not good news for the RP industry. Yet, it has been the same for nearly every new technology. And like other successful technologies, the industry will conquer these obstacles to experience strong growth and widespread use. The only question is when.

The good news is that both the early adopter and the conservative wait-and-see buyer can succeed. The early adopters garner tremendous competitive advantage. Meanwhile, conservative buyers will not suffer because most of their competition also is waiting for the technology to mature.

The catch-22 is obvious. Without a significant number of users, low-cost systems and advanced materials will be slow to develop. Without buyers, little development will occur. And with little development, there are fewer buyers.

So, do you sit on the sideline and let the industry evolve at its own pace? Or, do you become an active participant that produces change? The industry is awaiting your answer.

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