I completed a project recently that required me to find many examples of rapid manufacturing. I found more than 50. It would have been difficult to find a dozen two years ago.
Rapid manufacturing is the direct production of finished goods using an additive fabrication process. An example is the manufacturing of custom in-the-ear hearing aids that are sold to customers. A broader definition is the indirect production of finished goods using an additive process. An example is the production of guides or hand tools that are used to aid in the assembly of a product. BMW and Jaguar are using fused deposition modeling and laser sintering, respectively, to produce assembly aids.
Rapid manufacturing, in both its direct and indirect forms, eliminates the need for tooling such as molds and dies. Tooling is usually a necessary evil in manufacturing, but the many examples that I’ve found prove that it can be eliminated. In the future, this elimination of tooling—for certain types of parts—will open up the possibility of manufacturing products that before were not feasible due to time, cost, and risk.
In my search for industrial examples of rapid manufacturing, I began to realize that most companies are not discussing how they are using additive processes to manufacture parts. They are keeping it a tightly held secret because of the strategic edge that it could—and in some cases, is already having—at their organizations.
My guess is that for every example that I’ve found, there are another 5-10 examples that we will never hear about. This means that there could easily be as many as 300 to more than 500 cases in which companies have applied the concept of rapid manufacturing. That’s exciting, especially when you consider that it’s in its infancy.