Back in the 1990s, as I watched what was then commonly called "rapid prototyping" slowly catch on among manufacturers as a method of producing prototype parts via technology such as SLA, SLS and FDM, I wondered if it wouldn't be a great technology for moldmakers to adopt for their shops as a value added service. Moldmakers seemed to ignore it for the most part. The service bureaus seemed to be ahead of their time, and they sprang up, consolidated and died an agonizing death.
By the early part of this grand new century, some forward-thinking companies such as Stratasys and 3D Systems - now two of the biggest names in 3D printing - began to explode and rapid prototyping, renamed 3D printing and then officially called additive manufacturing, roared back to life. New materials were being developed so that engineers could get parts in the actual material of the end use component. New machines were evolving, prices dropped, some became desktop models, some were touted as being as almost as easy to work as a Play-Doh maker.
I kept waiting for moldmakers to see the light and install 3D printing as an added value service for their customers, but it didn't happen. Even though better materials, a wider variety of materials and bigger and better 3D printers came online, moldmakers remained on the sidelines.
EOS GmbH in Germany developed a new technology called "direct metal laser sintering" or DMLS, and I thought for sure moldmakers would get excited about AM using powdered metal. I had visions of cores and cavities being "built,"dropped in a mold base and a few hundred parts injection molded in a matter of 24 hours. That excited me! Obviously, I'm not a moldmaker.
I toured what was then Morris Technologies in Cincinnati (before they were purchased by GE Aviation), and was so excited about what they were doing in printing cores and cavities, that I had them come and speak at an AMBA Convention. They hand-carried a core and cavity set to the meeting, and told how quickly the prototype mold or "bridge tool" could be built and actual molded parts delivered to the customer that I thought for sure the excitement would be overwhelming - but it wasn't.
Okay, here we are in 2014. I'm headed off to the RAPID 2014 (aka BIG M) 3D printing trade show, which ironically is the same week and about 40 miles from the Amerimold trade show, which I'll also be attending. RAPID is an exciting show - so many things happen each year between trade shows that I never see the same thing from year-to-year. It's exciting stuff.
A few mold manufacturers have adopted 3D printing and are printing prototype parts, and cores and cavities from ABS using FMD, and powdered metal using DMLS. But not many take this business seriously. They should. It's a great add-on business to moldmaking and 3D printing has taken North America by storm. I can see that it would excite customers - particularly those in a hurry for test parts - and now even end-use parts.
Materials have evolved to the point that many companies are using 3D printed parts in jet engines, vehicle components, and much more. They're skipping the mold. And that's why mold manufacturers need to be worried. Not that the capability exists to make these 3D printed parts in volume - it can't. Yet.
But technology is moving forward and it's moving fast. More than two decades of the evolution of rapid prototyping/3D printing/additive manufacturing has passed and the window is closing for that opportunity to provide this service to customers. Many OEMs - like Ford for example - have installed their own 3D printing divisions to see for themselves what can be done. And many new things can be done, many end-use parts made, with a mold - or without one.
Moldmakers better look before it's too late.