ExpressTool Inc. has taken its first commercial steps with a technology that it claims could revolutionize mold making, shaving weeks off the production tooling process for injection molding.
ExpressTool, a division of Warwick, R.I.-based Infinite Machines Corp., has developed its unique rapid tooling technique for half a decade. In May, the veil was lifted —at least halfway—when ExpressTool began accepting commercial orders from carefully selected customers, partly for outside research purposes.
The next phase, which could occur as soon as the end of the year, is for full commercial production to begin, said ExpressTool President Terry Feeley.
The Warwick-based start-up company is now poised to enter what is expected to be a future battleground, according to industry experts. Already, several rapid prototyping equipment manufacturers have started marketing rapid tooling techniques, with others close behind.
Yet, ExpressTool officials say they have made a breakthrough: Their technique can make high-volume, full-blown production tools that match the accuracy and surface finishes needed for a production run.
The company expects to produce more than 200,000 pieces from one tool, Feeley said. That's a departure from other rapid tools, which offer shorter-run molds that propel production until a machined tool is completed.
``Tooling is the key to manufacturing because it's one of the most expensive and time-consuming areas.'' Feeley said. ``We want to eliminate the high costs and long lead times without sacrificing quality. The market is there, the demand is there and our customers have encouraged us.''
Some experts warn that a rapid tool, which is made without the use of computer numerically controlled machines, might not achieve the precision of a large-run production tool. For instance, DTM Corp., a rapid prototyping firm in Austin, Texas, released its Rapid Tool sintering process 18 months ago. However, the company only suggests using the tools for runs of 80,000 parts.
``It's tougher to do more than that with a rapid tool,'' said Kevin McAlea, DTM vice president for marketing. ``Tolerance requirements are pretty tight for high-volume products. A process like ours works best as a bridge to production.''
But Infinite's stock and trade is in new technology. The company, founded in 1991, has spent the past five years developing products in laser material processing, manufacturing and applications technology, as well as in rapid tooling.
Meanwhile, Infinite has invested heavily in its future. In 1996, the company recorded sales of $5.1 million, with an operating loss of $3.1 million. That is not unusual for a company in its early development stages, said equity analyst Sean Chaitman of H.J. Meyers & Co. in New York.
``I wouldn't worry about their financial position,'' Chaitman said. ``We can't be alarmed because [Infinite] is a start-up company that is in the business of developing products. In fact, we expect the company to be profitable this year.''
ExpressTool is banking on rapid tooling to help mold a profitable future. It first developed the process in a joint research project with toy maker Hasbro Inc. of Pawtucket, R.I., in the early 1990s.
ExpressTool performs powder-based and electroforming techniques to create its injection molding tools. The technique can involve a metallurgy process that uses chromium carbide and tungsten powder to create core and cavity mold inserts. The inserts, which contain special cooling channels, are integrated with a mold during the build process.
The processes can reduce cycle times by 5-20 percent, depending on parts geometry, Feeley said.
The company will roll out the process slowly under what it calls a beta commercialization program. Currently, six unspecified Fortune 100 companies have agreed to use the process to make production tools while ExpressTool works out any bugs, he said.
Other companies in the automotive, aerospace, imaging and consumer goods industries also are expected to sign on soon to use the technology, he added.
If all goes well, ExpressTool plans to expand commercial production by year-end, said Infinite President Clifford Brockmyre. That could involve the acquisition of production facilities to produce the tools or an expansion of ExpressTool's existing Warwick plant, where the molds are made now.
``We'd bet the farm that rapid tooling is the direction the industry is going,'' Brockmyre said. ``The door is getting ready to swing open. We expect to expand dramatically to take advantage of the opportunities.''
The door already has swung open for other companies. 3D Systems Corp. in Valencia, Calif., introduced its Kelltool powdered-metal process last year. Another company, Extrude-Hone Corp. in Irwin, Pa., plans to market a process invented by scientists at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., that uses three-dimensional printing. Later this year, Extrude-Hone expects to announce when the process will be available commercially, said Michael Rynerson, director of rapid machining.
The industry should keep multiplying, said industry consultant Terry Wohlers of Wohlers Associates Inc. in Fort Collins, Colo. However, rapid tooling still has some kinks to work out before the tools are production-quality, he said .
``The size of the tooling market is huge, and there are at least a dozen fairly promising approaches on the way,'' Wohlers said.
``A number of issues, such as accuracy and surface finishes, are being worked out by several companies in the industry,'' he added.