Rapid prototyping winning recognition

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The recent announcement of a manufacturing hub in Youngs­town, Ohio, is the impetus for this column. The city in northeast Ohio near the Pennsylvania border is part of the infamous Rust Belt.

Even Bruce Springsteen has a song about the city, once famous for steel mills and a longtime poster child for economic atrophy.

But something is happening for Youngstown and more pointedly, for the plastics industry. The White House has an initiative to boost manufacturing, and dozens of partners will join forces with $30 million in federal money to use Youngstown as a hub for testing additive manufacturing. The project is called the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute.

This initiative is bringing into the spotlight a niche manufacturing technology that has given Invisalign orthodontic braces to consumers and complete facial reconstructions to soldiers returning from war. Additive manufacturing, also known as three-dimensional printing or rapid prototyping, allows users to create products via layering material. Digital files direct which products to produce. The technology has been used in aerospace and automotive but is finding its way into other markets including consumer goods and medical.

At Shapeways.com, participants can upload their designs for 3-D printing. Shapeways even offers tutorials and an area of the website where you can take 2-D to 3-D. There are nine possible material selections, including three categories of plastics: strong and flexible; fine detail; and frosted detail.

The Internet world is discovering innovative ways to use this technology, so why not the industry that produces the most popular material used by the technology? According to additive manufacturing industry expert Wohlers Associates Inc. of Fort Collins, Colo., the sales of plastic for additive manufacturing, which includes thermoplastics and thermoset, exceed the sales of metal, wax or ceramic materials. Also, the number of machines making polymer parts is greater than the number of machines making metal, wax or ceramic parts.

Within the last six months, Plastics News has been peppered with stories about additive manufacturing, including acquisitions by industry major 3D Systems Corp. The maker of 3D printers acquired Bespoke Innovations Inc., which designs custom prosthetics using rapid prototyping, and Paramount Industries Inc., which does rapid product design and development for the medical and aerospace markets.

But don’t let what has been done limit your imagination. This technology is experiencing growth for a reason. It can be implemented across many markets depending on your appetite for risk and adventure. You have to think creatively to find ways to make the best use of it for your own business. While it has largely found its home in small-volume parts production, the technology can be used for prototyping and early-stage design work. Companies using the technology include consumer giant Newell Rubbermaid Inc. and mold-making firms like Proper Group International Inc.

DeRosa is Plastics News’ conference producer.