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DEARBORN, MICH. — Three of the world's leading companies are using rapid prototyping technology extensively to take new products to market quickly enough to maintain their competitive edge.

Speakers from Eastman Kodak Co. in Rochester, N.Y., 3M Co. in St. Paul, Minn., and Ford Motor Co. in Dearborn, Mich., described how fundamental the technology has become to their companies' product development.

The officials spoke April 22 during an industry perspectives session at the Rapid Prototyping & Manufacturing '97 conference and exposition in Dearborn. The three-day conference, which was expected to draw more than 1,600 people, was sponsored by the Society of Manufacturing Engineers, the Rapid Prototyping Association of SME and the Plastic Molders and Manufacturers Association of SME.

Rapid prototyping can be defined as the use of special computer-aided design and engineering processes to produce a model in a brief time. The process, which was first launched commercially a decade ago, has found a permanent place in the development departments of many companies.

One home for the technology is at Eastman Kodak. To compete effectively, the company set goals to consistently improve new designs while reducing development cycle time as much as 10 times that for previous products, said Gerry Angeli, manager of high-volume equipment manufacturing at Eastman Kodak.

``It didn't take long for us to figure out that rapid prototyping has a place in that equation,'' Angeli said. ``It's a product born of the time that will help us meet and exceed expectations for revenue growth and earnings increases.''

At its Rochester offices, the company now has four stereolithography machines, a selective laser sintering unit, two fused deposition modeling units and an Actua 2100 concept printer, according to Eastman Kodak officials at the conference.

The equipment has been a major contributor to the development of many Kodak products, Angeli said. They include single-use pocket cameras, the new Advantix cartridge camera and the company's LED Digital Color Printer.

In the case of the Advantix, prototypes were quickly built — with numerous design iterations from rapid prototyping techniques — for the camera's more than 20 cartridge-loading features. After the camera's frame and loading chamber were consumer-tested, new prototypes were designed by rapid techniques to complete the design cycle quickly, Angeli said.

The same was true of the light-emitting diode printer, which had 44 parts prototyped three to six months into design. For a new digital video camera, nearly 10,000 assembly parts were made into rapid tools in a half-hour period as a bridge to production, Angeli said. Stereolithography was used to build a master mold.

``We needed to have the tools ahead of time,'' Angeli said. ``We couldn't have a large pipeline of parts lying around when we wanted to start assembly,''

Getting products quickly into consumers' hands also is integral at 3M Co. About 30 percent of company sales annually come from products introduced in the past four years, said William Coyne, 3M vice president for research and development.

The company began with rapid prototyping in a primitive form 15 years ago by generating solid objects using imaging technology, Coyne said. Today, the $15 billion company uses sophisticated equipment for its 40 business units that include medical, pharmaceutical and dental products.

``Expectations are high,'' Coyne said. ``We need to move our high-tech products into the market faster than the competition.''

Coyne added that 3M would rather overspend its product-development budget by 50 percent and reduce profit by 3-4 percent than redesign the product six months after it is launched, which can reduce potential profit by one-third.

Rapid prototyping is especially critical in the medical field, Coyne said. Products such as new shoulder implants must be in surgeons' offices quickly before excitement begins to wane. Prototyping equipment can shave five months off the design process, he added.

3M's prototyping techniques, which include the prominent use of stereolithography, also are used to build metered-dose aerosol inhalers for asthma sufferers. In that instance, the company used rapid prototyped models of a lung's tracheobronchial tube to test the accuracy and effectiveness of its inhaler models.

Outside the medical field, rapid prototyping has helped the company make quantum leaps, Coyne said. That includes 3M's creation of wireless headsets used by workers in the fast-food industry. One new product was brought to market eight to 10 months faster than traditional prototyping methods by using prototyped models of its housing during design, Coyne added.

Rapid prototyping also is important at Ford, where the company has installed 24 rapid prototyping machines in the past decade. The technology is especially useful in bringing vehicle prices to an affordable level for consumers, said Charles Wu, director of manufacturing and materials at the Ford Research Laboratory in Dearborn.

Doing that requires that design concepts be tested quickly to allow time for changes, he said. Besides developing concept and engineered models, Ford has also used its equipment for rapid tooling since 1993.

One use of the technology at Ford was in the development of nylon air-intake manifolds. By using mold-curing equipment from Cubital America Inc. of Troy, Mich., Ford built a functional manifold model and tested it for emissions and other features in a two-week period, Wu said.

Many engine parts are also developed by Ford through rapid prototyping, including rocker arms, engine blocks and transmission housings. Though CAD modeling, Wu said a typical engine design can be completed in less than three months.

``We call it the 100-day engine,'' he said. ``We institute the right cutting technique to precisely build the engine and create a product that can be evaluated very quickly.''

Ford is also experimenting with new rapid prototyping technology to further reduce the time to market. The technology includes metal spray-formed tooling, where a metallic material is sprayed into the mold, and laser direct-metal deposition.

The next step, according to Wu, might be the manufacture of functional production tools from rapid prototyping. However, the technology faces some challenges to get to that point, including parts precision, strength, size and cost issues, Wu said.