RapidTech: Industry's Best Kept Secret

By Terry Wohlers, President, Wohlers Associates

The "Wohlers" column is authored by Terry Wohlers for Time Compression.
This column was published in the September/October 2009 issue.

Have you heard of the National Center for Rapid Technologies, also known as RapidTech? The National Science Foundation funded the launch of the four-year program at Saddleback College (Mission Viejo, CA) in September 2007. Its purpose is to support industry and education at all levels, particularly in the adoption of rapid technologies, such as additive manufacturing (AM), to increase global competitiveness. Proper implementation of these technologies helps to ensure that they reach their full market potential while continuing to support emerging and ongoing workforce development.

Community colleges concentrate on both education and training. What’s the difference? Consultant and futurist Joel Orr once described the difference like this: Would you rather have your daughter attend a course in sex education or sex training? The difference becomes very clear. While community colleges are about both, universities usually focus on education and research. The practical hands-on piece of the learning process is often emphasized at community colleges, while theory and academic achievement are emphasized at universities. Both approaches are important, but they are different.

RapidTech is mostly about practical knowledge and skills development in preparing people for the world of work. It has provided services and technology transfer to hundreds of companies, institutions of higher education (mostly other community colleges, but also some universities), K-12 schools, and community organizations. In its two-year history, RapidTech has introduced AM technology and career opportunities to more than 2,000 students. Also, it has provided hands-on access to AM equipment (it is running nine machines representing six processes), laser cutting and engraving, CNC, moldmaking, metal casting, laser scanning, and other prototyping and manufacturing processes.

RapidTech also works extensively with high schools. Workshops for high school counselors and faculty have been held in partnership with industry in an attempt to interest more non-traditional students into technical programs. A newly developed workshop will be used as a model nationally to assist other institutions in encouraging non-traditional students. 

RapidTech works extensively with private industry. It processes two or three industrial projects per week, an estimated 120 annually, an activity that provides financial support to the institution. The projects involve new product development and prototyping across many industries, including consumer products, aerospace, motor vehicles, medical, architecture, and entertainment. After introducing new methods and technologies to companies, RapidTech refers them to those who offer commercial services, thus reducing the likelihood of competing with service providers.

Saddleback College made its first impression on me in July 2004, long before it launched RapidTech. I was participating in a National Teacher Training Workshop at the college, a week-long event that it has held several times since. Saddleback has been successful in attracting 40 to 50 instructors and administrators from many community colleges, and a few universities, from across the nation to the workshop. I could tell that the people in attendance were engaged and excited about the presentations and hands-on learning opportunities. The instructors and administrators take what they learn back to the schools to share with others. This summer event has led to the adoption of AM technology by more than 80 U.S. institutions of higher education into their instructional programs. What’s more, it has become the foundation of an impressive nationwide network of educators focused on AM and related technologies.

“The National Teacher Training Workshop has brought together many colleges and encouraged communication among them that would have otherwise not occurred,” said Jim Horton, CAD/CAM Systems Specialist at Central Piedmont Community College (Charlotte, NC). “And, it has developed strong and lasting relationships. For example, Jerry Franklin of Danville Community College (Danville, VA) provides laser sintered parts to us and we provide FDM and 3DP (Z Corp.) parts in return,” Horton explained. “As for the workshop itself, I gain more in a week than I would otherwise in a year. Where else can I get this kind of information and hands-on experience?” As I thought about what he said, I concluded that he’s right: I don’t know where a college instructor could gain so much in such a short amount of time.

RapidTech has benefited from a strong industry advisory board. Members are from Airflow Systems, Boeing Phantom Works, Ford Motor Co., Hester Studios, Procter & Gamble, and others. The board provides guidance to the RapidTech staff on industry needs and trends and where to take the program in the future. It also provides help with selecting new equipment and processes. RapidTech has outgrown its facilities and is currently seeking to expand into new space.

With ASTM International Committee F42 on Additive Manufacturing Technologies in full swing, RapidTech sees an opportunity to help transfer the new ASTM industry standards to educational institutions and the private sector. Edmonds Community College (Lynnwood, WA), a RapidTech partner, is adding AM to its materials science programs and could play an important role in assisting with this effort. Another opportunity for RapidTech is to launch a certificate program that certifies one’s knowledge and skills in specific technical areas of additive manufacturing.