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September 27, 2002

7 Min Read
Rapid product developer is developing rapidly

Tool_Catalyst6.jpg

A medical device used for monitoring patients at home for sleep disorders is shown in two components and assembled. The design was engineered, two molds built, and parts were in hand in 15 days.

A product just can't come to market fast enough anymore, so one firm is blazing a speedy trail through the development cycle with tools built for production parts in just days.

OEM companies that used to measure development cycles in months or even years are now measuring in weeks and in some cases, days. They are starting to think in terms of hours. The resulting markets for rapid technology, despite the poor economy, are bustling: rapid engineering, rapid design, rapid prototyping, rapid tooling, rapid production. Using any or all of these technologies is giving OEMs what they really want: rapid product development (RPD).

Seeing a market opportunity where many saw merely a trend, Catalyst PDG set up shop four years ago in Indianapolis to reduce development cycles for OEMs. PDG stands for Product Development Group, and since its founding, Catalyst has grown rapidly by slashing development time for its clients—often dramatically. When VP Earl Dunlap talks about how the company has taken big or even small chunks of time from development cycles, he bubbles over with excitement. “This is all about time to market,” says Dunlap. “The word is out among manufacturers about how it works. They want it, and, fortunately, it is still improving.”

By now, it is generally accepted among marketers that being first to bring a product to the customer generates much more income and profit than being second or third. Though this has been generally associated with go-go markets such as computers, consumer electronics, and automobiles, Dunlap says the idea is now working its way into virtually every industry and market. Compressing development time, he says, is something every company needs and wants. Therefore, the groundswell of activity seen in rapid engineering and design, rapid prototyping, rapid tooling, and rapid short-run manufacturing is no surprise.

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Products developed by Catalyst surround the company’s founders: Jack Lawson, president (left); Dennis Turner, VP (center); and Earl Dunlap, VP.

Catalyst PDG, which now employs about 30, has been attacking RPD in a number of ways. It has strong front-end design skills with up-to-date CAD systems. Twelve of its people are in plastics tooling, or more properly, rapid tooling. A good indication of the fast pace of this business is their productivity: 35 to 40 tools per month, all of them made fast. Rapid prototyping is an in-house specialty with prototypes available in virtually any material, including wood and metals. There is also an in-house plastics molding operation to speed up that stage of the cycle. Capabilities extend to making first working prototypes of electromechanical components.

Wanting to take a leadership role in rapid development rather than simply participating, Catalyst developed proprietary technology in-house. For instance, the company created a material-process combination to make SLA prototypes with about 12 times normal impact, tensile, and torque strengths. One significant development is a system for creating a rapid tool that allows normal molding of high-quantity parts in the production material or nearly any other material the client wants in days, not weeks.

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A STAT tool built with a clear textured finish molded this translucent light cover for an office divider system. Mold build time was 10 days.

STAT—As in Right Now
Catalyst PDG is currently beginning to license a proprietary process for rapid toolmaking called STAT (Sample Time Acceleration Technology) that is a hybrid of composite and traditional tooling technologies. The company has been using it in-house for several years with excellent results. The bottom line, says Dunlap, is that the client can have plastic parts molded in the resin of choice in days, as opposed to weeks or even months, and the quality is very high.

Catalyst’s STAT Process produces molds that can do the following:

  • Yield 1500 or more pieces, depending on the material.      

  • Produce parts microsized or as large as 6 by 18 by 20 inches.      

  • Use the customer’s material of choice.      

  • Allow high polish and texturing.      

  • Hold tolerances of ±.005 inch.      

  • Include multiple slides, undercuts.

    How rapidly will that happen? Turnaround time—art to parts—using STAT technology is quoted by Catalyst as seven days. Dunlap says it’s often faster, depending on the complexity of the part, and larger parts can take a few days longer. He says holding tolerances of ±.005 inch, or even tighter, and producing parts in the production material at a quality normally associated only with aluminum or steel tools is what sets the STAT process apart in the RT field. Not surprisingly, the process is patented; Catalyst will not disclose many details and will show photos only of the molded parts, not the molds themselves.

    The key to the technology is a trademarked tempering process, RP Tempering, which, when applied to composite materials, allows them to withstand the heat and pressure inside an injection molding clamp. The tempering is a four-step process, and the technology is still undergoing development. Currently, tools are made using a mix of STAT composite material and traditional metal; however, in the future, they will consist almost entirely of composites. The material will be formed in spherical shapes for uniformity.

    A special resin flow orifice regulator (RFOR) developed for the STAT tooling and molding process prolongs the life of the tool, especially where the STAT composites come into play. Upfront engineering accounts for the tempering process so tolerances can be held. The part file is adjusted for the thickness variation caused by tempering, process tolerances, and resin properties during the mold split and design.

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    Containing more than 100 details, these paper path document imaging parts were made with the STAT process. Tolerances were held to ±.003 inch.

    Catalyst Catalyzes its Own Development
    Besides OEMs such as Kodak, HP Invent (Hewlett-Packard), Motorola, Cosco, Fleetguard, Amway, automakers, and a list of other household names, Dunlap says the client list also includes many project-responsible molders and moldmakers. What is of paramount importance to each Catalyst client, he says, is sheer speed. “They each want to be first. The return on investment is there.” Conversely, time lost translates directly into lost revenue and profit.

    In addition to product development, engineering, and prototyping, Dunlap says product testing has been a critical component of Catalyst’s total service. On the front end, Catalyst offers finite-element analysis (FEA) of the product design and Moldflow analysis of the mold configuration. On the back end of the cycle, it provides services such as life cycle analysis, impact, overall performance testing, and more. It also tests materials stringently. The current range of materials used includes PP, PE, nylon, PC, ABS, blends, and even phenolics. Fillers and reinforcements such as glass and carbon are routine.

    Supporting the rapid turnaround cycle near the back end are four molding machines that include a 10-ton Morgan system and JSWs in 50, 165, and 500 tons. That range and the related possible mold sizes, says Dunlap, position Catalyst to handle the vast majority of part sizes and designs of its clients. They also position the company to do short-run production for clients. That area has been growing fast and proving itself so busy and profitable that Catalyst may spin it off as a separate operation.

    Speaking of other operations, Catalyst is opening a second location in Irvine, CA in November 2002 to keep up with the workload, and, more importantly, to ensure fast turnarounds. Dunlap says current planning envisions up to four more sites in strategic locations at dates still to be determined, but not far off. At that point, he adds, the firm will be adding sales/client contact people—something it has not had until this point. The need for rapid product development was and still is urgent enough, says Dunlap, that once it began delivering high-quality rapid development engineering, prototypes, and molded products, word of mouth filled the order slots.

    Contact information
    Catalyst Product Development
      Group Inc., Indianapolis, IN
    Earl Dunlap
    (317) 786-4444; www.catalystpdg.com

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