DEARBORN, MICH. — The rapid prototyping industry is also a rapid-growth industry, according to an annual study released last week at a worldwide conference.
The study, published by industry consultant Wohlers Associates Inc. of Fort Collins, Colo., shows that the rapid prototyping market grew 42.6 percent during 1996 to $421 million, from an estimated $295 million in 1995.
The industry's recent growth trends led Wohlers to expect the rapid prototyping market to break the $1 billion barrier in sales of products and services by 1999.
However, sales growth should level off in the near future, company president Terry Wohlers said at the Rapid Prototyping & Manufacturing '97 conference, held April 22-24 in Dearborn. The conference was sponsored by the Society of Manufacturing Engineers and SME's Rapid Prototyping and Plastic Molders & Manufacturers associations.
``I expect there to be a shakeout eventually to reduce the number of people in the industry,'' Wohlers said. ``It's already beginning to happen today as the industry has become more mature. Still, growth has been extremely strong for some companies.''
Wohlers' annual study also provides a birds'-eye view of unit sales of rapid prototyping systems. According to Wohlers, 763 systems were sold in 1996, a jump of 46 percent from 1995.
For the first time in the industry's decade-old history, Stratasys Inc. of Eden Prairie, Minn., sold the most units last year. The company, which makes equipment using fused deposition modeling, sold 257 units.
Second was 3D Systems Corp. of Valencia, Calif., the leading maker of stereolithography equipment, with 175 units sold. Wilton, N.H.-based Sanders Prototype Inc., which makes an inkjet prototyping system, was third with sales of 65 units.
3D had led in unit sales each year since the technology's inception, Wohlers said. The company is still far and away the leader in annual sales among equipment suppliers, with $79.6 million during 1996.
In the past four years, combined unit sales for all companies have grown 62 percent, with 2,250 rapid prototyping systems now installed worldwide, Wohlers said.
Other survey results include:
Rapid prototyping was used most frequently in the consumer products industry, which captured 23.3 percent of the total market. Next came the automotive industry, with 21.8 percent and the business machine market with 13.9 percent.
The United States still dominates as a system destination point, with 52 percent of units installed there during 1996. Japan is next, with 18 percent of overall unit sales.
Other countries using rapid prototyping systems in large quantities include Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Korea and Italy.
Rapid prototyping is used most frequently to create visual aids (19.3 percent of applications). Other popular uses include producing functional models, fit and assembly pieces, and patterns for prototype testing.
Service bureaus comprise 23 percent of the market in unit sales. Prices for rapid prototyping models from service bureaus were down 15-20 percent last year.
``That's good for the customer, but not good for a company that relies on profits from rapid prototyping models,'' Wohlers said.
Wohlers also warned that even though rapid prototyping should be a billion-dollar industry by 1999, some current technology will become as distant a memory as the eight-track tape.
``Some of the systems in rapid prototyping used today won't always be around, either,'' he said.