Rapid Prototyping: State of the Industry 1994

Published in RPA/SME’s Rapid Prototyping & Manufacturing ’94 Conference Proceedings Copyright 1994 by Wohlers Associates

The rapid prototyping (RP) industry is experiencing impressive growth. Companies that use the technology are reporting astounding reduction in design and prototyping cycles and experiencing measurable improvements in new product quality. Many companies, such as General Motors, Texas Instruments and United Technologies, have elected to purchase multiple RP systems to keep pace with demand. Indeed this young industry faces a host of interesting challenges and opportunities. Organizations in Japan, Europe and the United States are launching new educational programs, R&D projects, associations and industrial groups and consortia. Meanwhile, several exciting technologies and applications are on the horizon.

Market Dynamics

U.S. manufacturing may be on the rebound, especially in the automotive sector. Chrysler, for example, plans to add 6,000 new jobs this year. This turnaround will surely help accelerate the sale of RP systems. System sales in Europe will grow also, but to a lesser extent. In Japan, sales will continue to be slow until their economy improves. 1994 will be the year of market penetration into countries that have not had access to the technology. Already, systems have been installed in at least 29 countries. (See the Appendix A for a list.) Many companies, including those located in the Pacific Rim, will embrace the technology for the first time, although at a relatively slow and cautious rate.

From January 1988 through December 1993, growth of RP system sales was an estimated 51 percent per year, on average, compounded annually. The past three years, however, growth has averaged 26.5 percent. Last year, it grew 28.1 percent. Still, this is excellent, especially compared to the growth rate of the CNC and machine tool markets in their early years. From 1970 to 1981, for example, the CNC market grew at an annual compounded rate of 22 percent, on average, according to Julius Dorfman of CIMdata, Inc. Between 1963 and 1973, the overall machine tool market grew an average of only 8.5 percent per year. Wohlers Associates expects worldwide RP system sales to exceed 36 percent compound annual growth in 1994. See Appendix B for more information.

Throughout 1994 and into 1995, 3D Systems, Inc. will continue to dominate the market in the U.S. and Europe, although their overall market share will decline, as it has over the past two years. This is inevitable as new RP products enter the market, but does not mean that 3D Systems will not do well in 1994. In fact, they are on course for an impressive comeback and very possibly another record year, with a strong potential of posting a string of profitable quarters for the first time since mid-1989 to mid-1990. After that time, profitability became difficult, especially when the company beefed up their staff and opened sales offices throughout U.S. and world. Last year, the company posted record sales of $31.1 million, a 20 percent increase over 1992. Improving economic conditions and better financial management at 3D, coupled with a maturing of stereolithography, accounts for 3D’s upswing. In January 1994, 3D Systems claimed to have a five month backlog of orders for new SLA systems.

RP Service Business

Service bureaus (SBs) will continue to play a dynamic and important part in the RP industry. Wohlers Associates, in cooperation with Laserform, estimates that SBs generated $40-60 million worth of business in 1993. This does not include revenue generated from non-RP services, such as CAD and engineering work, secondary tooling and part duplication and outsourcing of castings. Revenue generated from SBs accounts for about half or more of all dollars generated in the RP industry, making RP a $100 million industry in 1993.

According to CAD/CAM Publishing, the number of SBs increased over the past 12-18 months from about 80 worldwide (50 in the U.S.) to about 105 (63 in the U.S.). If you add in the remaining D-MEC and CMET SBs in Japan, the number increases to about 111 total. As RP applications grow and the technology improves, more companies will give it a try. The easiest and most economical way is to use a service bureau. This means that a company’s first experience with RP will most likely be with a SB.

The improving economy in the U.S. and the growth of service bureaus are factors that will lead to a healthier RP industry through 1994. Strong market growth in the U.S., and to a lesser extent, Europe and Japan, will also come as a result of the following factors:

Awareness. Companies previously unaware of RP’s cost/performance benefits are beginning to open their eyes. An increase in the number of seminars, publications and services are helping to educate hundreds of design and manufacturing professionals. In less than one year, the Rapid Prototyping Association of the Society of Manufacturing Engineers (RPA/SME) has grown to nearly 1,000 new members. Throughout 1994, RPA/SME will conduct a series of nine introductory seminars, called First Look, giving companies across the nation a chance to see RP systems in action and learn about the technology. Also, RPA/SME has published a comprehensive bibliography of RP resources, which can help anyone save substantial time and effort when researching the subject. Because education is expensive, one should not underestimate the value of these activities and their contribution to the development of this young industry. Until recently, RP vendors and service bureaus have shouldered most of this burden. The myriad of educational products and services becoming available will help offload much of this responsibility.

Erasing myths. Companies that once believed RP parts are dimensionally inaccurate and fragile are slowly learning that this is no longer true. Progressive users of stereolithography, such as Laserform, are reporting RP part accuracy of +/- 0.075 mm (0.003 inch) across a 230 mm (9-inch) part. According to Paul Jacobs, Ph.D, director of R&D at 3D Systems, at least one stereolithography resin, Ciba-Geigy’s XB 5170, offers material properties that rival the performance characteristics of a popular ABS plastic.

Technical enhancements. Systems that were previously in a test phase of development are available commercially, and have been for more than a year. Companies that sold only a few units in 1992, such as DTM, Helisys and Stratasys, have each sold 22-33 units in 1993. Having productions units at many customer sites helps to accelerate the rate at which the vendors can improve their technologies because customers provide valuable feedback.

Early RP systems required a technician to understand and set an intimidating number of operational parameters. Today, many of these settings are standardized or simplified, making the operation of the system easier. Software and workstation front-ends are better and much faster than before, reducing the hassle of preparing data for the RP process. Presently, computers are increasing in performance by a factor of about three, every two years. Mechanically, RP systems are more robust, which translates into less downtime and a system that is more reliable and less expensive to maintain.

Personnel and organizational issues. Organizations are beginning to bring RP systems into the mainstream of their business. They are setting up operations that act as in-house service bureaus which provide models and prototype parts to many divisions of the company. When RP systems first became available, they were installed in R&D labs and used mostly for experimentation. Today’s RP systems require less technical expertise and function with fewer problems. The most successful organizations employ people with an upbeat, can do attitude to operate and manage the RP operation and track the development of the technology and RP industry. This helps to keep the organization moving in the right direction.

Complimentary processes and technologies. The most successful users of RP systems identify processes and technologies that enhance their RP investment. They view the RP system as an important enabling technology, one that permits them to function more efficiently and perform differently than they have in the past. For instance, RP enables users to produce secondary tooling far quicker than before. Using one of many RP methods, such as 3D Systems’ QuickCast, users can produce patterns for metal castings in a fraction of the time. The use of a 3D digitizing system makes it possible to scan complex shapes, model them and make changes using a CAD system and then produce an STL file for RP part production.

CAD solid modeling. CAD solid modeling (SM) units are selling at a record rate in the U.S. Companies are installing Pro/Engineer, Unigraphics, I-DEAS, AutoCAD Designer, and other SM products for mechanical part design, assembly modeling, finite element analysis and CNC tool path generation. RP has become an important motivating factor for companies considering SM for the first time. But even with this growth, it is expected to take years before SM will make its way into most organizations that could benefit from it. Meanwhile, many companies have yet to make the full jump from manual board drafting to computer-aided drafting. For those that have, organizations are clinging to old methodologies, such as using CAD as a 2D drafting power tool.

In order to take full advantage of CAD for product design and manufacturing, companies should remember that roughly 70-80 percent of a product’s ultimate manufacturing cost is determined and fixed during the design phase. Interestingly, only about five percent of the product development budget is spent during the design, engineering and documentation phase. Yet organizations continue to use CAD to reduce the five percent, instead of using it to help them make better decisions about the 70-80 percent. The availability of RP systems, coupled with the price/performance improvements of CAD solid modeling, are causing companies to rethink their CAD strategy.

If we can build prototypes, tooling and even production parts without drawings, do we really need them? Why automate what you can eliminate? Someone close to Boeing claimed that the documentation for a Boeing 747 weighs more than the airplane itself. Apple Computer uses Critical to Function drawings which include vitally important dimensions only. The main chassis for one of their Macintosh Quadra computers is a single complex injection molded part, yet the drawings of it contain only five dimensions. These dimensions, and only these dimensions, were deemed critical to the performance of the design.

As for 3D modeling, CAD/CAM developers have yet to offer computer tools that are as comfortable and easy to use as foam, clay and pine. If they did, everyone would be using them. Part of the problem is the need for a better user interface (UI). Some claim that producing an easier UI is an extremely difficult task because a CAD system is a very complex machine. Most people would agree, however, that an automobile is a much more complex machine, although it offers an excellent UI. The UI from one automobile to the next is also very consistent. Meanwhile, one CAD system may use the F1 function key to obtain a help screen while another may use it to erase the screen. That would be like switching the gas and brake foot pedals on a car. The movement toward a more standardized windows environment is a big step forward. For now, CAD solid modeling will remain the #1 obstacle to widespread growth and acceptance of RP. Indeed the RP industry is beginning to understand that the RP market will grow no faster than the growth of the SM market. Since one helps to sell the other, RP and SM vendors ought to consider strategic partnerships.

Changing Technology

The ratio of price to performance will continue to improve, but not as dramatically as it has in the past. RP material properties, system performance specifications and over system throughput, have improved significantly over the past few years. While most RP systems are still in their infancy, stereolithography has entered adolescence, which means it will experience smaller incremental changes. Enhancing accuracy, for instance, from +/- 0.075 to 0.025 mm (0.003 to 0.001 inch) will likely be more challenging than when 3D Systems improved it from +/- 0.25 to 0.127 mm (0.010 to 0.005 inch). Some of the most important improvements will occur in the RP system software, making the system easier to use and more intelligent. For example, future systems will automatically build thick layers when they encounter vertical walls in a part and thin layers in gradual sloping areas. The result will be a reduction of build time and a smoother surface finish.

In addition to technology enhancements, new RP products will be announced and made available for sale in 1994 and 1995. IBM (Yorktown Heights, NY) may become the first large U.S. corporation to enter the business. On February 21, 1994, the company announced that they are developing a true desktop RP system, with printer-like ease of use. Literature published by IBM shows impressive prototype parts produced by Laserform, Inc. and Chrysler Corp. IBM claims that their new technology can be used for the production of models for conceptual design and design verification, form and fit testing, and patterns for secondary tooling. Using a fabrication head containing a nozzle, the system is capable of extruding a broad range of thermoplastic materials, building parts layer by layer, according to IBM. This technology, if introduced effectively, could develop and eventually popularize the concept of desktop prototyping and manufacturing.

Sanders Prototype, Inc. (Wilton, NH) is the first company to introduce an RP machine using jetting technology for general-purpose models and prototype parts. (In 1991, Soligen licensed and developed a system based on MIT’s jetting technology, although it is being sold exclusively for the production of ceramic shells in the metal casting industry.) Roy Sanders, CEO of Sanders Prototype, founded Sanders Associates in 1951. In 1975, Sanders Associates purchased CalComp, a leading manufacturer of plotters and printers for the CAD industry. Although Roy Sanders left Sanders Associates in 1975, he has since spent much of his time in the printer business. He understands volume production and the sales and support of printer products, which may be helpful if his new RP product is a hit. In volume (orders of 1,000 units or more), Sanders indicated that they could sell machines for $15,000. Presently, their machine is priced at $70,000. E-Systems, Inc., a large defense manufacturer, helped develop the Sanders RP system and presently owns 10 percent of Sanders Prototype.

Other new approaches, such as rapid tooling, will open significant new markets for companies such as 3D Systems, DTM and others. Using 3D’s QuickCast technique, it is possible to produce patterns that represent the exact shape of a core and cavity tooling pair. Using QuickCast parts in conjunction with traditional investment casting offers the possibility of producing metal parts, which can in turn be used as tooling for injection molding. What makes this approach unique is the use of CAD solid modeling and RP to produce the tooling, which can reduce cycle time significantly. The CAD/RP combo offers an iterative design process, giving the design team the opportunity to verify and refine the tool design before going to metal.

In November 1993, DTM demonstrated its RapidTool process, which directly builds metal parts using selective laser sintering. Using a mixture of metal powder and polymer binder materials, the Sinterstation 2000 sinters the polymer material to form a green metal part. The part is then heated to a high temperature to remove the binder and sinter the metal. Finally, the porous metal part is infiltrated with molten copper to produce a stronger, denser part. Although little information about strength and accuracy has been made available by DTM, this development illustrates, for the first time, that producing metal parts is possible using a commercially available RP system.

As the market expands, entrepreneurs will identify niche opportunities for after-market products. Third-party software products, such as Bridgeworks from Solid Concepts and Magics from Materialize, are a sign of things to come. Resin makers, such as Ciba-Geigy and Allied Signal will prosper, but not until the market grows substantially larger. Until then, savvy developers of after-market products will enter the market, but at a relatively cautious pace.


Electronic Data Systems (EDS) sponsored a study conducted by Design Insights to examine the best practices in CAD/CAM at several manufacturing companies in the U.S. The companies were asked to list the most important areas of opportunity for speeding the development of new products. At the top of their list was to reduce the time to get fully functional molds and dies from suppliers. RP processes will play an important role. Second on their list was to reduce the time to model and re-model, as a design moves from initial design, through engineering, documentation, process planning and various supplier operations. RP processes will play an important role. Third was to reduce the time to get marketing, engineering, manufacturing – and the customer – to agree on new product specifications. RP processes will contribute in all three areas, making it a technology of strategic importance at companies that use it properly. At least six of the nine companies involved in the study, including AMP, Apple Computer, Eastman Kodak, GE Aircraft Engines, 3M and Motorola, are regular users of RP.

Overall, the prospects for growth in the RP industry are better now than ever. Many vendor companies are poised to experience a record year. Service bureaus, educational programs, industry associations and complimentary processes and technologies – particularly CAD solid modeling – will help fuel this growth. Bare in mind that when discussing RP, you are also discussing CAD. In most cases, you can’t have RP without CAD. The two are inseparable. Companies that are currently exploring the range of possibilities that CAD solid modeling and RP offer will finally jump on board in 1994 and 1995. The fact that their competitors are using these technologies to gain a competitive edge will influence their decision to buy now rather than wait.

Industry consultant Terry Wohlers works closely with organizations that are interested in shortening product development time and improving quality using innovative tools, techniques and management strategies. He has counseled numerous industry clients on issues related to the selection, installation and management of systems for rapid prototyping, reverse engineering and CAD/CAM/CAE. Terry is a founder and chairman of the Rapid Prototyping Association of the Society of Manufacturing Engineers (RPA/SME) and has published 180 books, articles and technical papers on engineering and manufacturing automation.

Address inquiries to Terry Wohlers, President, Wohlers Associates, OakRidge Business Park, 1511 River Oak Drive, Fort Collins, Colorado 80525, USA, phone: (303) 225-0086, fax: (303) 225-2027, e-mail: 73417.1465@compuserve.com


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