Rapid Prototyping in Japan and Europe

Terry Wohlers

An edited version of this was published in RPA/SME's Rapid Prototyping
Newsletter, Vol. 1, No. 2, Second Quarter 1995.

Copyright 1995 by Wohlers Associates

Introduction

Organizations in Japan and Europe are channeling talent and research funds into the development and application of rapid prototyping (RP) technologies. Japan has taken a long-range approach to understanding market needs and requirements while refining stereolithography. With the exception of Germany, most European countries are less focused on the development of new system technology. Most European programs concentrate on the application of existing technologies and on educational needs and opportunities.

Japan

Presently, a wider range of RP systems are available in Japan than in Europe and the U.S. combined. If you want to buy an RP system in Japan, you can select from 14 different systems. Eight of the systems are from Japanese manufacturers, while six are from U.S. and European manufacturers that have set up distributors in Japan. No other country in the world offers access to so many technologies. At the same time, fewer than 120 systems are in operation throughout the entire country. Furthermore, only one company in Japan, INCS, operates as many as three RP systems at one location. INCS is one of Japan's top service bureaus and is the distributor of 3D Systems' stereolithography products. Six other companies run two RP systems and all others have just one.

Japan's weak economy and its limited use of CAD solid modeling have been factors in their slow sales. In the U.S., CAD solid modeling is becoming accepted at many companies, but in Japan, solid modeling is only beginning to show up. This has and will continue to play a critical role in the growth of RP in Japan because you must have a digital model before you can produce an RP part. If you must first create a CAD model for the purpose of RP -- which is what many Japanese firms are attempting to do -- RP can be much too costly.

Compared to the U.S., the RP service business (SB) in Japan is small. Twelve SBs are doing a combined total of an estimated $11 million of revenue per year. Eleven of these 12 companies are producing a total of only about $5 million in revenues per year. That's less than $455,000 per service bureau, which is much less than what SBs in the U.S. produce. Conservatively, each U.S. SB generated an estimated $1.47 million, on average, in 1994, according to figures generated by Laserform, Inc. (Auburn Hills, MI) and Wohlers Associates. This estimate includes only RP models, secondary tooling and duplicate parts that ware created as a result of the RP parts; nothing more. Over the past 12-18 months, RP users and producers in Japan have recognized the need to use RP to compliment and enhance the creation of molds and dies. Until '94, few in Japan tried to use RP for this purpose.

The U.S. dominates the CAD hardware and software market in Japan. This is a critical RP component that Japan would prefer to obtain from within its borders. A solid model database can serve as the core for many downstream engineering, documentation, prototyping and manufacturing functions, so CAD solid modeling has become a very important piece of the automation puzzle.

Few Japanese companies have embraced RP technology to the point of making it a regular activity. Most companies are using it on an experimental basis, even at sites that have had systems for two or more years. Some owners of RP equipment aren't even doing that. For the most point, Japanese user companies are still in a test and development phase.

Meanwhile, the Japanese are developing and refining RP technologies and resins at an impressive rate. Much of what is available from Japanese vendors meets or exceeds the capabilities of U.S. and European technologies. Interestingly, the Japanese vendors seem to be less concerned about system sales at this time and more occupied with enhancing the capabilities of their technologies, especially accuracy. They don't view their current line of RP systems as products, but rather as development systems. They see a need to refine their processes over time and work closely with their customers, and competitors, to define and clearly understand market needs and requirements. The Japanese have taken a long term perspective on the field of RP and they are financially supported by some of the largest companies in the world, such as Mitsubishi, NTT Data Communications and Sony Corp.

With the support of Japan's Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI), several companies in Japan have formed an organization called the Japan Association of Rapidprototyping Industry (JARI). As a government supported, industry driven organization -- made up primarily of technology developers and RP system manufacturers -- JARI is attempting to develop, refine and reduce the cost of important elements of stereolithography. As part of this effort, MITI is providing 800 million yen (about $8 million) for four years for research and development. Presently, the U.S. supplies critical system components, such as lasers and galvanometers, but Japanese vendors would like to free themselves from paying a premium for these components and relying on the U.S. for them. The Japanese government is also providing a tax incentive for companies buying RP systems, a program proposed by the RP vendors. The tax incentive is an attempt to stimulate the purchase of RP systems by small and medium size companies.

Europe

The RP picture in Europe is quite different. It has become a Mecca of research consortia. No other region in the world is performing such as high number of consortia activities, perhaps as much or more than the U.S and Japan combined. This is due in large part to the availability of European Community (EC) funds that have become available over the past few years. An unprecedented level of cooperation among companies and countries have developed, as the EC has loosened its purse strings.

Among the programs, facilities and research activities: the RP&T Consortium in Warwick, England; CREATE in Paris, France; ESSTIN and CNRS in Nancy, France; WISA in Germany; SINTEF in Norway; and INSTANTCAM, NOR-SLA, CARP, and EARP which involve several countries in Europe.

Brite EuRam and Esprit are two EC Directorates that are the most involved with RP. Brite focuses on Basic Research In TEchnology and funds most of the European RP projects at this time. Esprit is involved more on the computing side of engineering and manufacturing. The Eureka programme is supported jointly by the EC and national governments, whereas Brite and Esprit are funded exclusively by the EC.

CARP is a three-year consortium (April '92-April '95) agreement which is supported by Europe's Eureka program. The consortium, called Computer Aided Rapid Prototyping (CARP), is funded by several million British pounds (8.9 MECU). The project focuses on integrating elements of CAD, CAE, RP, interfaces, working practices and model development. The consortium is led by Ricardo Consulting Engineers of the UK. Participants include DELCAM International (makers of the DUCT CAD/CAM software), University of Leeds, Webster Mouldings Ltd., CADDETC, and Magnesium Services Ltd. - all of the UK. Others members include Volkswagen AG (Germany) and Dott. Vittorio Gilardoni SpA (Italy).

EARP. The EC-funded European Action on Rapid Prototyping (EARP) initiative is a three-year project formed to serve as a central forum for information exchange and cooperation and to establish new R & D areas in Europe. Coordinated by the Danish Technological Institute, EARP serves as the basis for interaction and integration of Brite EuRam projects on RP. As of September 1993, the consortium consisted of 22 partners from universities, research centres and private industry. One activity by EARP is the organization of conferences and exhibitions focusing on advances in medical modeling using RP. These events illustrate the level of interest in applying RP to medicine in Europe.

RP&T Consortium. The Rapid Prototyping & Tooling (RP&T) Consortium is housed at the Advanced Technology Centre (ATC) within the University of Warwick (Warwick, England). ATC has been working on rapid tooling for many years, before the RP&T Consortium was formed. The Consortium itself is a three-way partnership between the Rover Group, the University of Warwick and the Warwick Manufacturing Group. The Warwick Manufacturing Group is a collaboration of local manufacturing companies that was formed prior to the formation of the RP&T Consortium. An RP&T Club is also intertwined. The Club's role is to educate and disseminate information. As part of this mission, they conduct 25 seminars a year. The number of club members is now in the triple digits.

INSTANTCAM was a three-year project launched in June 1990 and supported by the Brite EuRam program. The full name of the project was the Reduction of Design to Product Lead Time Through Instant Manufacturing of Models, Prototypes and Tools. The goal of the project was to improve and increase the use of RP technology. The project was a partnership of 11 organizations from five countries. Participants included the Danish Technological Institute, Danfoss, Black & Decker, Wilhelm Karmann, Biba Institute, Inst. Superior Tecnico, Raufoss, Helsinki University of Technology, SINTEF, E&D Design and Oy Saab-Valmet.

NOR-SLA. NOR-SLA was a two-year joint Nordic industrial research project. Beginning April 1990, it involved six participants from Denmark, five from Sweden, six from Norway, and one from Finland, including at least two INSTANTCAM participants. The full name of the project was Machining Data for Production of Stereolithography Models. The basic objectives were to perform research to determine how SLA models could be produced with the best possible dimensional accuracy and surface finish at the lowest possible cost. In October 1993, SINTEF (Norway) and 40 other companies and institutes within the Nordic region, launched a new two-year Layer Manufacturing project.

The University of Nottingham, under the direction of Dr. Philip Dickens, has demonstrated that you can build metal parts using welding technology and a multi-axis robot. In mid-1994, the university received a new eight-axis robot the size of an average American living room. The 3D welding project is being funded entirely by the EC Brite EuRam program in the amount of about 0.5 million pounds sterling ($0.8 million). Parts produced by this process have a rough and uneven surface finish and the shapes are basic, although they do show promise. Automobile engine parts, such as a thermostat housing, do not require a smooth surface finish. Critical regions, such as where parts mate, could be machined.

Some of the most impressive work is being conducted by the network of Fraunhofer institutes in Germany. As many as seven institutes of the Fraunhofer Society (FhG) are developing or working with RP technology in some way. At the center of this work is the WISA project. Its purpose is: 1) to develop 3D digitizing technologies for reverse engineering, 2) address software and data transfer issues using STEP, and 3) develop RP technologies for the production of metallic prototype parts and tools. Many of the institutes have been working in these areas, but little coordination existed among then. The WISA project attempts to create alliances among the seven institutes.

Fraunhofer-Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation (IPA) in Stuttgart is working in the CAD/STEP area; Fraunhofer-Institute for Applied Materials Research (IfaM) in Bremen is working on materials; and Fraunhofer-Institute for Production Technology (IPT) in Aachen is working on processes and machine technology. Other institutes involved in RP are the Fraunhofer-Institute for Chemical Technology (ICT), Fraunhofer-Institute for Computer Graphics (IGD), Fraunhofer-Institute for Laser Technology (ILT), and Fraunhofer-Institute for Production Systems and Design Technology (IPK).

One of the developments has been named Multiphase Jet Solidification (MJS) which produces metallic and ceramic parts. IPA is working with IfaM on this project and they hope to commercialize it over the next year or so. The basic idea of MJS is to extrude low viscosity materials through a jet, layer by layer. They've tried different materials in powder, pellet and bar form. Heating the material to above its solidification point causes the binder in the material to liquefy and the melted substance solidifies when it comes into contact with the previous layer. The result is a green part that requires debinding in an oven and sintering to final density or infiltration with another material. IPA has produced simple parts in stainless steel (316L), titanium, Sic and alumina oxid. Incre Inc. (Corvallis, OR) and the University of California (Irvine) have demonstrated metal deposition techniques that resemble MJS. Incre has produced parts in tin and is now focusing on aluminum, which begins to melt at a higher temperature.

IPT is developing selective laser sintering (SLS) for the production of metal parts, an indirect method involving polymer coated metal particles. The polymer serves as a binder which temporarily bonds together the metal material. This technique produces green parts which require burn out of the polymer, sintering of the metal and infiltration of another material such as copper for increased part density. This is similar to what DTM (Austin, TX) is developing and attempting to commercialize.

With IPA's assistance, the University of Stuttgart is establishing a special research center with the support of the German National Research Foundation. Participants will include nine institutes of the University of Stuttgart, an institute of the Technical University of Dresden and Daimler Benz AG. The three-year cooperative RP research agreement, which began in September 1994, involves organizational issues, business practices, costs, quality management, and information processing as they relate to product development using virtual reality, computer simulation and RP technologies. Other IPA activities include R&D in reverse engineering using touch-probe and optical sensors and metallic coating of plastic prototypes. IPA and IPT also participate in EARP.

Summary

With all of the RP activity in the U.S., it's easy to ignore what's going on outside our borders. If you take a look, you may be surprised by the number of activities and resources being spent on rapid prototyping (RP) programs in Japan and Europe.

Acknowledgment: The author thanks David Tait of Laserform, Inc., Martin Geiger of the Fraunhofer-Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation and Stefan Noken of the Fraunhofer-Institute for Production Technology for their cooperation.

Terry is a founder and past chairman of the Rapid Prototyping Association of the Society of Manufacturing Engineers (RPA/SME) and has published 190 books, articles and technical papers on engineering and manufacturing automation.

Copyright 1995 by Wohlers Associates