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March 1, 2001

4 Min Read
More than just a moldmaker: Rapid prototyping as a profit center

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When rapid prototyping first hit the world a decade ago, moldmakers ran the other way, wanting nothing to do with a process many feared would eliminate the need for prototype tooling. The result: The rapid prototyping business became an industry unto itself, with service centers setting up shop around the country ready to ride the predicted boom. But, when the boom ultimately withered and failed to meet expectations, it left an opening for a few brave moldmakers. 

JK Molds Inc. (Upland, CA) saw an opportunity to get into the rapid prototyping game a year ago when the company purchased a fuse deposition moldeling (FDM) system from Stratasys (Eden Prairie, MN). Terry Colbert, JK Molds' president, notes that the system creates functional ABS parts that can be bonded, sonic welded, and tested for fit. 

"We can make a part in 8 to 10 hours that would otherwise take several weeks doing it the conventional way [with a prototype mold]," says Colbert. "We saved one customer eight months of research and development work using FDM." 

Colbert admits the limitations of the process, noting that if a customer needs 500 preproduction parts, it needs conventional prototype tooling. However, he adds, "it's great for a one-up." JK incorporated the FDM capability as a value-added service and Colbert says that it has paid off in getting more work in production tooling. 

"The quicker I can get [customers] to production tools, the better my business is," Colbert says. 

A Profit Center 
When not using FDM for its own projects, JK Molds sells time on the system to firms that need a prototype part. This generates about $12,000 a month in revenues for the company. "We had no intentions of making FDM a second business, but it has become a very positive thing for this company," says Colbert. 

Greg Latimer, president of Triad Plastic Technologies Inc. (Reno, NV) agrees. He's the only shop in the region, to his knowledge, that offers FDM and SLA (3D Systems, Valencia, CA) as a value-added service. Latimer operates a full-service moldmaking shop and production molding facility with six presses. 

Latimer says rapid prototyping enhances his design engineering capabilities and gives him an additional profit center. Of course, his goal is to get customers into production tooling and molding. So, as an incentive, Latimer offers customers a 10 percent discount on molded parts invoices over the first year or until the prototype is paid for, whichever comes first. 

Latimer prefers the SLA system, which allows him to do multiple parts simultaneously. "This spreads the costs out over several customers and is very economical for them," he says. 

Latimer says his next step will be one into the rapid tooling arena so that Triad can offer this as a "bridge" tooling solution for its customers. 

'We had no intentions of making FDM a second business, but it has become very positive.'

Terry Wohlers of Wohlers Assoc. Inc. (Fort Collins, CO; www.wohlersassociates.com) confirms that many moldmakers are beginning to buy into the idea of rapid prototyping as a viable business tool. Some are reluctantly accepting it, sensing pressure by competitors that are using the technology. "Savvy moldmakers wisely view it as a communications tool," says Wohlers, who publishes an annual report on the rapid prototyping industry. "A $500 RP model can easily save $5000 in tooling changes, not to mention weeks of time." 

Jim Tuttle, vp of marketing for 3D Systems, says there is no question that moldmakers are coming to a new attitude about the value of rapid prototyping. "Time-to-market pressures, shorter production runs, all of these things are putting pressure on getting designs completed faster and at a lower cost," he says. "This is resonating with our customers who opt for some sort of bridge tooling that's quick and inexpensive." 

Although the bulk of 3D's sales is still to service bureaus, OEMs that have captive prototype capabilities, and model shops, Tuttle says the company's marketing strategy for 2001 includes working with moldmakers to promote the trend of building prototype tooling using SLA. 

Rapid Tools Next 
3D Keltool, part of 3D Systems, has been marketing its technology along these lines for several years, notes Tuttle. The system, he says, creates a tool that's "pretty close" to a steel tool. "Some use [3D Keltool] to make the whole tool, others use it to make the detailed portions of the tool using Keltool inserts in a conventionally made tool," explains Tuttle. 

Ward Jensen, FDM product manager for Stratasys, says often the prototype parts are used as models for moldmakers. "It's good to have a drawing, but what a great benefit it is to have an actual part and see what it is you're supposed to machine," says Jensen. 

Contact information
JK Molds Inc.
Terry Colbert
Phone: (909) 981-0993, ext. 323
Web: www.jkmolds.com

Triad Plastic Technologies Inc.
Greg Latimer
Phone: (775) 853-6653
Web: www.triad-plastics.com

Stratasys Inc.
Bob Adamzak
Phone: (952) 937-3000
Web: www.stratasys.com

3D Systems Inc.
Jim Tuttle
Phone: (661) 295-5600
Web: www.3dsystems.com

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