Rapid prototyping came onto the scene about seven years ago, with rapid tooling following on its heels. There was some skepticism - and maybe a little trepidation - about the impact these new processes might have on the mold-making industry. Although some mold makers and molders believe that there is no future for rapid prototyping, given that new mold-making technology has reduced lead times on single-cavity prototype tooling to two to three weeks, a look at the RP industry shows otherwise.
An RP industry report released in April by Wohlers Associates in Fort Collins, Colo., showed the primary rapid prototyping market grew by 49 percent to $295.1 million in 1995. This figure in-cludes revenues generated worldwide from product sales and services.
The RP secondary market segment, which includes secondary tooling created from RP patterns, and castings and duplicate parts produced from this tooling, was estimated at $176.1 million for 1995.
Terry Wohlers, principal consultant and president of Wohlers Associates, said, ``New technologies, products, and applications have led to a new level of excitement in the RP industry, and coupled with strong growth in product sales and services, presents a very optimistic view of the RP industry and its future.''
A few molders/mold makers jumped on the RP bandwagon early with mixed results. Many hoped that providing the service would increase sales, only to find that adding RP is not for everyone. RP is a specialty service and success is not guaranteed for everyone who gets into it.
Getting into RP requires a large, capital equipment investment up front, personnel dedicated to the process and the secondary operations required, and commitment from management to make RP pay for itself. And that is often more difficult than it sounds.
A.J. Jacobsma, a mold maker in charge of Mikros Engineering's RP department, said it's been tough keeping its RP equipment busy.
``There was a lot of interest at first, but now we don't have the amount of work we'd like to see in that area,'' he said. ``Selling this service has not been the easiest thing.''
Mikros Engineering, located in Brooklyn Park, Minn., is working on new ways to market the service and keep the equipment operating. Jacobsma said the company is considering making RP a part of its mold-making service by adding a prototyped part in with the price of the mold.
Some molders who implemented RP have gotten out of providing the service, such as Tredegar Molded Products Co. Earlier this year, Tredegar, in Orlando, Fla., donated a little-used, 7-year-old, SLA 250 rapid prototyping ma-chine to the University of Central Florida's College of Engineering for use in its laboratory.
Edward J. Cigoi, director of tooling and technology for Tredegar, said, ``I think there are certain customers that need the service, but my customers would rather have prototype molds made so they can get parts in the actual material required.''
``Some things just have to be done in the materials they are designed for in order to do testing, and determine fit and function,'' said Jay Riddle, president of Advanced Technology in Corona, Calif. ``All stereolithography gives you is a part to look at.''
Three years ago, Riddle developed a method for building complex injection molds in 10-14 days. This method replaces stereolithography, he said, thus eliminating that link in the chain.
Riddle recently completed a project that took six weeks to create seven generations of tooling and molded parts to get a part in a material that would work. Now, almost 100 percent of his work is focused on his method of rapid tooling.
Riddle's design engineers also are computer-literate machinists who each have their own computer. Each engineer takes the part from concept through design through finished mold and molded part, rather than doing only one phase of the project. He builds complex tooling for small, high-risk parts that many mold shops would find it difficult to produce profitably.
``The problem with these parts is that the tools require too much redesign,'' he said.
Riddle's goal is to reduce his lead time to one week.
``We can do it now, but not consistently,'' he said. ``I hope to be there in the next six months.''
Still, those in the RP industry say that there is no better way to determine the accuracy and usability of a design than with an RP part.
Thomas J. Mueller, a partner in Prototype Express, a rapid prototyping service in Schaumburg, Ill., said that mold makers are being short-sighted by not recognizing the value of rapid prototyping.
``Sure, a mold maker can make a mold quickly, but if there's a mistake, it's costly,'' said Mueller. ``You want to discover design problems before you've invested in tooling.''
Mueller said that in the several weeks it takes to get the steel, square the blocks and cut the pockets, an RP part can be made from which to make polyurethane castings, and the part tested in the same amount of time. He also believes an RP part is superior to viewing a 3D solids model software program.
``I would like to believe that we'd eliminate the need for rapid prototyped parts by CAD images,'' said Mueller. ``I'd say 90 percent of our customers use Pro/E, and I'm amazed at the number of times they say, `I thought it would be bigger' after getting an RP part. It's difficult to get a sense of the dimension on a [computer] screen.''
Spotting problems with fit and function, and other design flaws seems to be the main advantage cited by those in the RP industry for getting an RP part made prior to moving on to hard tooling.
R.J. Robinson, in charge of the rapid prototyping unit of the University of Kentucky's Center for Robotics and Manufacturing Systems in Lexington, said, ``As a concept model, on a very de-tailed, complex part [RP] allows you to see problems that you can't see on a print.''
Robinson believes any company coming out with a new product should have an RP part built first.
``I've seen it happen over and over again,'' he said. ``They build a prototype part and say `Man oh man, look at that.' The advantage to discovering design errors in a prototype part is they don't have that big steel tool looking at them in the face.''
``You have to evaluate the job,'' Wohlers said. ``If you're talking about production tooling and wanting to make a steel mold for high-volume production, there aren't any processes to help you get there really quickly.''
Wohlers pointed out that research done by Austin, Texas-based DTM Corp., a developer of stereolithography for rapid prototyping and Selective Laser Sintering for rapid tooling, has shown it takes 39 days to produce prototype tools using conventional mold-making methods. ``[DTM] can do it in four to five working days,'' said Wohlers. ``There's some hand work and polishing necessary prior to molding the parts, but nevertheless, that's impressive and shows the promise of these processes.''
Greg Krikorian, sales manager for Plynetics Corp., a rapid prototyping and rapid tooling service bureau in San Leandro, Calif., said that shortened times to market have pushed rapid prototyping to the forefront.
``There is no other process that produces parts directly from CAD data in two to four days,'' he said, ``so having those touchy-feelies available is still a critical part of the design process.''
Those having the most success at RP are those service companies whose only business is RP and rapid tooling. Wohlers estimates there are some 125 service bureaus in the United States. The 1995 service bureau market was estimated at $135.5 million, representing annual growth of almost 43 percent.
Those interviewed at service bureaus all said the same thing: you cannot treat RP as a hobby or sideline if you want to be successful. There are several reasons why molding or mold-making companies have had trouble getting RP to fly as a part of their businesses, despite the increase in demand and growth in RP.
Frost Prioleau, president of Plynetics, began his business seven years ago, on the edge of the RP wave.
``There were, especially in the early days, high expectations, but the reality was different. Today, technology has improved, and we're able to meet those expectations through more accurate and functional parts, and better materials. Like any business, you need to focus a lot of time and attention on it and generate significant expertise in that area,'' he said. ``That's probably where companies not successful with it fell down.''
Wohlers agreed that it takes a lot of expertise to get into RP, something a molder or mold maker thinking of adding the service needs to realize.
``There are various reasons people fail with the technology,'' Wohlers said. ``Unrealistic expectations, or it doesn't fit into their business. Any company I've seen that's been successful runs the machines 24 hours a day, demand is so great. That pays for the machine.''
Wohlers said that most molders or mold makers are probably better off using a service bureau to provide their customers with RP parts, primarily because of the expense.
``You have to budget at least 10 percent of the [equipment] purchase price for maintenance, the lasers need to be replaced periodically, materials are expensive, you need to install special ventilation and know how to handle the toxic resins,'' Wohlers said.
Another group that has been successful at RP are schools. Many universities have implemented RP and provide the service to local companies for minimal cost, usually an amortized fee to help with maintenance, cost of the materials and maybe a small fee for the students' time.
The state of Kentucky established its Center for Robotics and Manufacturing Systems 10 years ago, and funds it as a means to promote economic growth, technology transfer, and research and development, Robinson said. The center has had RP capability since 1990.
``Our stereolithography ma-chine runs four out of five days a week,'' Robinson said.
Mueller started Prototype Express in September 1989. Since then, it has produced more than 25,000 parts, and is doubling sales every year. Mueller said the company primarily serves OEMs but ``that will change as customers drive their molders to provide prototyping'' services.
Last month, Mueller added the RapidTool process with the installation of an SLS system from DTM.
Mueller admits that RP is a ``different kind of business,'' still he said he would not get into molding or building tools. ``We can do it cheaper and faster in RP,'' he said.