RAPID PROTOTYPING BEGETS FANS, SKEPTICS

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AUBURN HILLS, MICH. — Still struggling for acceptance from mainstream tooling shops, rapid prototyping and tooling has birthed an industry Goliath to try to take the technology to new heights.

In February, Plynetics Express Corp. completed the purchase of Laserform Inc., a $6 million rapid prototyping shop based in Auburn Hills. The acquisition — along with the merger in July of San Leandro, Calif.-based Plynetics Corp. with Prototype Express Inc. of Schaumburg, Ill. — has created possibly the world's largest supplier of rapid prototyping and tooling services.

The merged company, known as Plynetics Express, expects to reach combined sales in 1997 of $24 million.

The three firms — all of which were founded in 1989 — together have 20 stereolithography machines, six selective laser sintering machines and two fused deposition modeling units. The price was not announced.

Mark Searle, Plynetics' vice president of operations, said: ``By putting all of us under one roof, we have a greater capability to do any form of rapid prototyping. That gives us a breadth of competitive offerings unlike other companies.

``That's an advantage that can only help us gain more penetration as the market expands,'' he said.

But that silver lining is clouded by some lingering doubts about the process.

Rapid prototyping — which creates actual conceptual models using computer imaging techniques — has hit a few speed bumps on the road to mass acceptance since it first came on the market a decade ago.

Tooling companies have been slow to add the equipment due to its cost, as well as the prototypes' rough surface finishes and lack of durability. Instead, the technique is used more readily by service bureaus and research departments of large companies, limiting growth by barely tapping a potential market.

The technology still stirs skepticism in tooling circles.

``I can't afford to add equipment that I'd use less than once a month,'' said Ron Pleasant, president of Pleasant Precision Inc., a tooling company in Kenton, Ohio.

``Most of our customers would rather see a part in the finished material. Plus, we have enough difficulty already finding good people to fill the jobs available,'' Pleasant said.

Another mold maker was even more blunt about the prospects for rapid prototyping.

``My customers would only use it for show-and-tell when they want to make something quickly to take to a trade show,'' said Albert Schmid, president of Superior Mold Co. in Ontario, Calif. ``The quality's not the same.''

Even so, new technology recently has become available that could spike interest. That includes processes to create more durable models for longer production runs and prototypes from a wider range of materials that more closely resemble finished parts.

Charles W. Hull, president of 3D Systems Inc. in Valencia, Calif., is considered the father of rapid prototyping. He helped invent the first use of the process when his sterolithographic apparatus was launched in 1987.

Hull said that he expects the mold-making industry to yield some ground to rapid prototyping in the next few years.

``It's been a slower evolution in the mold-making industry, but [equipment suppliers] are doing some interesting things that could change that,'' said Hull, whose company is considered a leader in rapid-prototyping equipment with $79 million in 1996 sales.

``Our customers are discovering that they can make injection molding tools out of stereolithography by shooting a few parts into the plastic. It should be a powerful trend for people using the equipment.''

Last September, 3D Systems also purchased Keltool Inc. of St. Paul, Minn., which produces tools from a powder and steel slurry cast with silicon rubber. The result is a durable steel reproduction of a highly contoured plastic mold that can be mass-reproduced, Hull said.

Hull said he'd like to see mold makers practice concurrent engineering with rapid prototyping, where they design a rapid prototype simultaneous to producing the tooling. By doing that, changes could be made quickly to the design while not slowing the tooling process, he said.

``Right now, it's a vision, but it certainly could happen in a five-year time frame,'' he said. ``That would really help the advancement of the plastics industry.''

Another advance is in the use of durable functional prototypes that are better at withstanding impact.

DTM Corp., an Austin, Texas, maker of selective laser sintering equipment, is producing functional prototypes from flexible elastomeric polymers such as Somos 201 from DuPont Co. Models made from the material are being used by several large automotive suppliers, said Tom Lee, DTM marketing vice president.

The rapid-prototyping industry is projected to generate $656 million in sales during 1997, according to Wohlers Associates Inc., a consulting firm in Fort Collins, Colo.

A recent Wohlers study showed 763 rapid prototyping systems were sold during 1996, up 46 percent from 1995.

Buoyed by new technology, firms such as Plynetics believe they can ride the wave to greater success.

David Tait, president of Laserform, said the industry already has cleared two hurdles — problems with the computer software when he founded his company in 1989 and the large capital required to enter the business in the early 1990s.

``The costs are coming down and the technology is getting better,'' Tait said.

``Our next challenge is to overcome the lack of awareness about our capabilities,'' he added.