August 3, 2006

Sixty Machines at Work

Filed under: Additive Manufacturing,Manufacturing — Terry Wohlers @ 11:16

On July 27, I visited the Paid Parts group at Stratasys (Eden Prairie, Minnesota). Paid Parts is a part-making business unit that includes RedEye RPM and Xpress3D. The company is running 60 fused deposition modeling (FDM) and PolyJet systems around the clock to meet the current demand. When I was there, most of them were running. Stratasys moved Paid Parts into one of four buildings that the company now occupies. Space adjacent to the 60 machines is open and ready for expansion.

Seeing 60 machines in a single room was impressive, and so was the few number of people needed to operate them. Only five individuals load new jobs and remove parts from the machines. These people also interface with the customers and manage the projects each step of the way. The post processing room is surprisingly small and simple, consisting of only two tanks for automatically removing the support material.

The company is attracting far more “rapid manufacturing” jobs than anyone at the company had envisioned. Rapid manufacturing is the use of additive fabrication to make series production parts rather than models or prototype parts. As a result, Stratasys is now targeting this market opportunity. One customer that produces specialized parts for cameras has ordered 1,750 PC/ABS parts to date and expects to order many more. The goal at the company is to eliminate all tooling. Another company has ordered 4,800 polycarbonate parts for a hand-held medical device that surgeons use for heart patients. Yet another rapid manufacturing job is for the U.S. military. It has ordered 400 parts in PC/ABS that are being used for a flashlight that mounts to an M16.

For each of the three examples, typical delivery is 50-200 sets of parts per week. Volumes are relatively low, so the production of tooling is an expensive proposition. All of the parts are relatively small and surface finish is not critical. As a result, it is feasible to produce these parts much faster and less expensively with additive processes, compared to the alternative of making molds and using injection molding.