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July 28, 1999

8 Min Read
Pulse check for rapid prototyping

Note to Star Trek fans: If you were expecting to replicate that cup of Earl Grey any time soon, think again. Rapid prototyping systems, the apparent precursors of the Star Trek version, are having a tough year. After back-to-back years of stunning growth in the 90s, it appears that RP sales and services have taken a nosedive. Based on information from Wohlers Assoc., revenues fell more sharply in '98 than in any previous year. On the other hand, several major RP manufacturers report more encouraging news based on their experiences.

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Figure 1. RP unit sales worldwide. Source: Wohlers Associates Inc.

OEMs, molders, and moldmakers poised to invest in the technology are receiving these mixed messages and hesitating before taking the plunge. Is the technology headed for oblivion, or experiencing a typical growth curve?

Analyzing the Data
In his 1999 State of the Industry Report, author Terry Wohlers confirms that RP sales are in a slump (Figure 1). "Compared to annual growth rates of 35 to 50 percent in most of the 90s," he adds, "sluggish sales that began in early '97 fell significantly last year."

Wohlers believes that several factors are at work in weakening the RP industry. "New technology generally follows a predictable growth curve as it is adopted. It is typical to see rapid growth patterns followed by a decline, and RP has reached this period of slower growth."

Another reason for the downturn can be seen in the dynamics of service bureaus, still a main customer base for many RP system manufacturers. Most service bureaus supply physical models for fit, assembly, and functional uses, which represent one-third of all RP models (Figure 2).

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Figure 2. How RP models are being used today. Source: Wohlers Associates Inc.

In the past year, the number of service bureaus rose to a temporary saturation level, according to Wohlers, leading to fierce price competition and the demise of both small and large operations, including Plynetics Express. "In addition, falling model prices make it less attractive for end users to purchase their own RP equipment, further reducing sales," he says.

Current RP users are compounding the situation, looking for more performance than the technology can presently deliver. "Customers are also asking for lower system prices, less maintenance, and easier operation," says Woh-lers, who predicts that the price of systems and services will drop this year.

Finally, Wohlers sees a potential boost for this industry as 3-D solid modeling becomes more prevalent among designers. "Predicted to grow by 100 percent over the next few years, solid modeling is the fuel that stimulates RP sales," he says. "As users make the switch to solids, RP systems and services become much more attractive."

All Systems Go?
Major RP system manufacturers have their own perspective on the health of the industry. Paul Blake, product manager at Stratasys, reports that the company's FDM product line continues to see good growth and demand: "The current market is certainly different from the early days of 150 to 200 percent growth rates, but we still see very stable growth, especially among OEMs in the consumer product market."

Molders and moldmakers who have invested in FDM systems are reporting good results, according to Blake. "A primary benefit for molders is increased visualization. They get drawings and databases, prototype the parts in hours or days, send them to customers, and ask if that's what they want. Then they can hold concurrent engineering meetings, decide how to tool up, and where runners, gates, slides, and lifters should go. For these customers, RP builds confidence and adds value." OEMs that use RP for concept verification through tooling also make use of models for design optimization, detailed design, and communication with manufacturing.

Charlie Wilson, vp, sales and marketing for 3D Systems, believes part of the reason for the downturn resides with service bureaus. "The service bureau segment of the market grew too quickly over the last two to three years and is now going through a consolidation," he says. "We believe that a much smaller set of companies will emerge that will be stronger financially and have a more focused business strategy."

Wilson also sees customers emerging at supplier levels. "Many OEMs are requiring their production suppliers to support solid imaging from the design phase through development to manufacturing processes. The value of owning solid imaging technology is that it should become a core technology and an integral part of the design, development, and manufacturing process. If companies are always outsourcing to a service bureau, they never develop the expertise in solid imaging. As an enabler for building tools and bringing products to market faster, RP is best when it becomes a core competency."

According to Wilson, solid imaging technology is critical to the automobile industry. "We see it growing in aerospace as well, but the real growth will come in consumer products, consumer electronics, and appliance industries," he says. "The next big market after these will be biomedical, once the technology can be proven to meet both regulatory and insurance requirements."

Rapid Tooling Gears up
Half of the customer prospects at DTM want tooling capabilities, according to Kevin McAlea, vp, marketing and business development. "We're working with traditional molders and moldmakers who want to offer quick turnaround on tools for quicker parts. They've also recognized the capability of using their RP system to produce models for other customers, in effect becoming a service bureau," he adds.

In fact, tooling is one of the bright notes in RP. According to Wohlers, this secondary segment of the RP market grew 17.5 percent to an estimated $376 million. In his keynote speech at SME's Rapid Prototyping and Manufacturing Show, he highlighted 3D Keltool (3D Systems) and silicone rubber tooling as proven technologies using indirect methods with RP master patterns. Direct approaches, in which the RP system builds the core and cavity mold inserts, include Direct Aim (3D Systems), RapidTool (DTM), and direct metal laser sintering (EOS).

What's new in RP/RT

Several exhibitors at RP&M '99, held recently in Rosemont, IL, added new wares to the current mix of RP products. Here are the highlights of those introductions:

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New 3-D printer from Stratasys, called Genisys Xs, features a 50 percent larger build envelope and greater ease of use.

  • Stratasys debuted its Genisys Xs, a new 3-D printer that will replace the current Genisys line. It features a 50 percent larger build envelope and more predictable performance. For example, an LED shows when the machine needs service, giving a 200-hour advance notice. According to Jon Cobb, vp, marketing, the Xs is an 80 percent redesign. "We concentrated on ease of use, servicing, and precision. Improvements to the x-y gantry allow for better snap fit or screw fit, and surface finish is also refined." The new system (priced at $45,000) includes a Linux back end rather than DOS for LAN connectivity. Models are built in a polyester compound at sizes up to 12 by 8 by 8 inches. Current Genisys customers are eligible for a free upgrade on both the pump and Linux improvements.

  • Ciba Specialty Chemicals introduced an epoxy casting system called Ren Mez as a companion product to its Ren Shape-Express 2000 machinable moldmaking material. Originally commercialized in Japan in 1992, the Ren Mez epoxy has been used by Japanese manufacturers to cast more than 20,000 injection molds for short run prototypes and production parts. Because of a high aluminum filler content, it produces molds with excellent dimensional stability, good strength, and a high-quality, polishable surface.

  • DTM now offers Direct Metal Fabrication technology licensed from Rockwell International. The new process is compatible with existing Sinterstation SLS systems, and will allow users to create fully dense, homogeneous metal parts in roughly three days. DMF can be adapted to a range of metal powders from mild steels to superalloys.

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An indirect tooling method from MCP Systems relies on vacuum casting to produce void-free aluminum-epoxy mold inserts.

  • MCP Systems announced a new patent-pending process for vacuum casting fully dense injection mold tool inserts. The system, called VaC.A.T., uses an 80 percent aluminum-filled epoxy (EP 250) with HDT above 250C as the mold material. From a stereolithography pattern, users first create an RTV mold. Components of the epoxy compound are mixed in a vacuum environment and automatically poured into the mold under the same vacuum for void-free inserts. Tolerances are in the ±.002 inch/inch range. Over 1500 parts have been molded on a single set of inserts in several different engineering-grade polymers.

Contact Information
Ciba Specialty Chemicals
East Lansing, MI
Deann Asher
Phone: (517) 324-1374
Web: www.cibasc.com

Stratasys Inc.
Eden Prairie, MN
Jon Cobb
Phone: (612) 937-3000
Fax: (612) 937-0070
Web: www.stratasys.com

DTM Corp.
Austin, TX
Kevin McAlea
Phone: (512) 339-2922
Fax: (512) 339-0634
Web: www.dtm-corp.com

Wohlers Assoc.
Fort Collins, CO
Terry Wohlers
Phone: (970) 225-0086
Fax: (970) 225-2027
Web: www.wohlersassociates.com

3D Systems
Valencia, CA
Mary Woods
Phone: (661) 295-5600
Fax: (661) 295-3404
Web: www.3dsystems.com

MCP Systems
Fairfield, CT
Michael Wells
Phone: (800) 627-0222
Web:www.mcpsystems.com

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