Rapid prototyping slows for some, gathers speed elsewhere

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July 14, 2009

Globally, the use of additive manufacturing (rapid prototyping and rapid manufacturing) grew well through 2008 in many countries, but there were some surprising downturns, including very slow growth in the U.S. and a dramatic drop in new installations in Japan.

Several countries with annual installations of 100 or more additive manufacturing (AM) systems experienced impressive double-digit growth in the number of new installations in 2008. China grew by an astonishing 39.7%, France by 29.2%, Germany by 23.6%, and the U.K. by 15.6%. The number of systems in the U.S. grew by only 4.4% and the number of new installations in Japan declined by 56.8%, said Terry Wohlers, CEO of Wohlers Associates, a Ft. Collins, Colorado-based RP/RM industry consulting firm.

A few countries with relatively small numbers of annual installations experienced strong growth from 2007 to 2008, including Brazil (23 to 42 units), Mexico (22 to 35 units), Thailand (43 to 67 units), Sweden (47 to 70 units), and the Netherlands (40 to 67 units). In China, through the end of 2008, an estimated 2472 AM machines had been installed in the country, compared to 1986 through 2007, according to the Wohlers Report 2009.

With the exception of Japan, the growth of additive manufacturing in Asia started much later than in the U.S. and Europe. Companies were merely experimenting with the technology in the late 1990s, with most machine installations in Asia occurring at technology transfer centers, universities, and training establishments, reports Wohlers.

In a presentation given at the 2009 Rapid Conference, held May 12-14 in Schaumburg, IL, Wohlers said that since the development of a roadmap for the additive manufacturing industry established in 1998, little organization on the national level has occurred over the past 10 years in the U.S. The National Center for Manufacturing Sciences led the development of this roadmap, and while Wohlers believed it served as a useful guide, “it was the work leading up to the document that was of most value.”

At the time when the roadmap for Rapid Additive Manufacturing (RAM) was proposed, 65 experts from academia, industry, and government attended a RAM Workshop with the purpose of developing a roadmap for research in additive manufacturing for the next 10-12 years. The effort was led by David Bourell of the University of Texas at Austin, Ming Leu of the Missouri University of Science and Technology, and David Rosen of the Georgia Institute of Technology. These three individuals, and others at the workshop, worked together to create a new roadmap. Sponsors were the National Science Foundation and the Office of Naval Research.

The workshop, and the work that followed, resulted in 26 research recommendations. Among them were: 1) produce a new foundation for CAD systems to overcome modeling limitations associated with building AM parts; 2) create closed-loop and adaptive control systems with feed-forward and feedback capabilities for AM machines; 3) develop and identify sustainable (green) materials that are recyclable and reusable, or biodegradable; 4) develop training programs with certifications for industry practitioners; 5) develop and adopt internationally recognized standards, such as those initiated by ASTM Committee F42; and 6) establish a national test bed center with AM machines and expert users to leverage equipment and human resources in future research.

“If we had made a lot of progress on any of those, there wouldn’t be a need to outline them,” Wohlers said in a telephone interview this week. “We’ve made some progress on the closed-loop systems, but not nearly enough. We really need systems that give us the feedback and then correct problems on the fly in order to produce high-quality parts.”

Asked about the state of the technology, Wohlers noted that controlling heat during additive manufacturing remains a real challenge, particular with systems such as laser sintering. “To understand what is fully going on in the bed of the powder is critical. We might understand that better now but we haven’t solved the problems,” he said. “Understanding the problems is one thing, but we haven’t fixed them.” For example, “If you build one part in the center of the build chamber and another part in one corner of the chamber, the results are different. Those differences may be insignificant depending on the application, and on how important things such as the surface quality and dimensional accuracy are to the final product.” But they may also be show-stopping differences. The RP/RM world clearly has plenty of potential but also plenty of challenges yet to overcome.                  
The complete 2009 Roadmap document is available here, as is the Wohlers Report 2009. [email protected]

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