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Rapid Prototyping Developments on the Increase

Desktop Manufacturing Will Become a Reality in the 90s

FORT COLLINS, Colorado, August 1, 1991 -- New developments are likely to trigger an explosion of rapid prototyping (RP) systems on the desktop. The activity may result from the introduction of new, affordable desktop peripheral devices that connect to popular desktop CAD systems. When this occurs, the market may grow to $1 billion.

Processes under development range from solidifying UV-sensitive liquid polymer with laser light, to feeding a thermoplastic filament through a heated extrusion head; from laser cutting polyethylene-coated paper sheets, to shooting droplets of ceramic binder through an ink jet head onto a flat bed of ceramic powder; from laser sintering powder materials, to focusing a flood of UV light through a computer-generated mask onto the surface of liquid resin.

Most RP systems use a layer building process. This usually means a 0.002 - 0.010 inch layer of material is fabricated, intricately, one on top of the next. The layer information comes to the RP system from a CAD system. Identical layers, called cross sections, are produced from a 3D CAD model. The layer building process repeats, from bottom to top, until the part is complete.

RP systems link to popular DOS and Unix-based CAD software such as Pro/Engineer from Parametric Technologies, ConceptStation from Aries, AutoCAD from Autodesk, and I-DEAS from SDRC. More than 33 CAD software products support RP systems by offering an STL interface. The STL file format is a de facto standard interface created by 3D Systems, the first developer to introduce an RP system.

PC CAD Market

Several developers are looking seriously at the huge number of PC CAD users as a potential market. What's more, four such developers are creating small RP devices that sit on the desktop in an engineering office. Most RP systems being sold today require a lab or shop environment because of their size and toxic nature of the materials they use. But desktop units will use non-toxic materials, and will require little cleanup.

The future desktop RP market will have a natural tie to the mechanical CAD market, mainly because RP systems are well suited for the production of mechanical parts. Also, RP systems require a 3D CAD model prior to part production.

Consider, for example, a $25,000 unit price (the ball park price of a desktop RP system) and the approximately 132,000 3D mechanical CAD users in existence today. The market will grow to $330 million when just one RP system sells for every 10 3D mechanical CAD users. If 10 percent of the approximately 400,000 2D and 3D mechanical CAD users accept the technology, the market will grow to $1 billion.

Of course, the market extends beyond mechanical design. Medical organizations, for example, use RP for the creation of knee and hip implants. Also, architects are exploring its use for creating scaled building models. The architectural market, alone, represents $750 million, using the above 1:10 illustration.

But while the concept of 3D desktop printing sounds promising, an important factor will come into play. RP systems require a complete, water-tight 3D CAD model and most CAD work being done today is 2D detailed drafting, even among those who own 3D CAD systems.

But despite this and other obstacles, the likelihood of success of desktop RP appears strong, and the technology will have a broad appeal. RP systems reduce development time and improves the quality of a design. In addition to design verification, companies currently use RP for fit and functional testing, customer presentations, and bid packages, as well as to produce master patterns for molds and castings. Any one of these activities will justify the cost of a $25,000 desktop system.

Wohlers Associates is an engineering automation consulting firm located near Denver, Colorado. The company provides purchasing recommendations for engineering managers and executives; strategic planning and competitive positioning for developers and vendors; and educational programs for end-users. The company's most recent projects concentrate on developments in CAD/CAM, rapid prototyping, and modernized manufacturing techniques.

For more information, contact Terry Wohlers, principal consultant and president, Wohlers Associates, OakRidge Business Park, 1511 River Oak Drive, Fort Collins, CO 80525

Copyright 1991 by Wohlers Associates