In a move that broadens its rapid prototyping product line, 3D Systems Corp. of Valencia, Calif., announced the purchase of Keltool Inc. of St. Paul, Minn., for $1.74 million. Both companies offer rapid prototyping technologies - Keltool sells rapid tooling, while 3D markets rapid prototyping -and each uses the other's process. President Charles W. Hull of 3D Systems said the firms will fit together naturally.
The Keltool process, originally developed by 3M Corp., makes sintered metal cores and cavities from a master model or pattern, usually created through stereolithography. These cores and cavities can then be set in a mold base where as many as a million injection shots can be gotten from the tool.
Turnaround times for tools made from the Keltool process averages four weeks, at an average cost of $1,200. For a premium of $900, it can be done in seven days.
Hull said that rapid tooling is a natural extension of rapid prototyping, something the company had taken a hard look at during the past 18 months.
``We're continually impressed by the capability of the Keltool process to take the stereolithography process and convert it to hard tools,'' Hull said in a telephone interview.
3D Systems was founded in 1986 to commercialize stereolithography technology. That was when the rapid prototyping industry was in its infancy, Hull said. The first system came on the market in 1988.
``We're still the leader in rapid prototyping in terms of sales and market share,'' Hull said.
The publicly traded company reported sales of $62 million in its last fiscal year.
Hull said that Keltool will operate as an ongoing business under its present name.
``We don't fully know the capability of the rapid tool process,'' Hull said. ``We've been users of the process - not owners - up to this point, so we'll be examining its actual capabilities.
``However, we see it as complementary to mold making in the sense that with certain kinds of molds it should be able to help mold makers make molds faster and cheaper.''
Hull said that besides manufacturing rapid prototyping systems, both hardware and software, 3D Systems also has a technical center that offers model or pattern-making services. The center now will offer the Keltool process.
3D Systems has no plan to expand its services or manufacturing into other U.S. geographic locations, but Hull is evaluating 3D's options.
``We do have plans to do more extensive product [research and development] and process evaluations,'' Hull said. ``Based on our initial experience and the outcome of that, we'll determine the next steps for the process.''
Terry Wohlers of Wohlers & Associates, a research and consulting firm in Fort Collins, Colo., specializing in rapid prototyping and rapid tooling, said the deal was ``a bit unexpected.''
But he said he believes the acquisition will be good for Keltool.
``I visited [Keltool] last year and got the impression that there's a lot of pent-up capability for that process that wasn't being exploited,'' Wohlers said. ``The word just hasn't gotten out, but it seemed like an opportunity for someone like 3D to come along and make that company successful.''
Besides its California facilities, 3D Systems has subsidiaries in the United Kingdom, France and Germany, and offers its products worldwide through distributors. The company employs 425 worldwide.
``[Rapid prototyping] is an area where we see a lot of promise,'' Hull said. ``From our perspective, it's still rapidly growing as more people see the advantages. Plus the technology is getting better. This industry still has a long way to grow.''