CINCINNATI - Worldwide sales of rapid prototyping machines grew 12 percent in 2000, and demand continues to grow for the devices that can turn out models quickly, according to a study by Wohlers Associates Inc.
Meanwhile, the Department of Justice is trying to block a deal to merge the two largest players, 3D Systems Corp. and DTM Corp., citing antitrust concerns.
Terry Wohlers detailed his annual report to kick off the Rapid Prototyping & Manufacturing 2001 conference, held May 15-17 at the Cincinnati Convention Center.
``Rapid prototyping is having a profound impact on the way companies produce models, prototype parts and tooling. A few companies are now using it to produce final manufactured parts,'' Wohlers said.
On the rise
Wohlers said 1,320 machines were sold in 2000, compared with 1,178 in 1999. Meanwhile, on the show floor, suppliers of the machinery pointed out that the strong growth came even as the U.S. economy slowed.
Jon Cobb, vice president of marketing at Stratasys Inc. in Eden Prairie, Minn., said strong sales have continued this year.
``In our first quarter, we're ahead of plan from a units standpoint. It definitely still remains strong despite, from the U.S. standpoint anyway, a weak economy. Europe and the Far East remain strong,'' Cobb said.
North America is the most important region for rapid prototyping machines, accounting for 45 percent of the installed base of more than 6,500 machines, the report said. With one exception, a decline in 1998, unit sales have increased steadily since the late 1980s, when the machines first became available.
Wohlers Associates of Fort Collins, Colo., includes everything from simple three-dimensional printers that can sell for $40,000, to high-end machines priced at several hundred thousand dollars.
The Wohlers report now calculates how many models and prototypes are made each year. Rapid prototyping machine users produce 3 million parts worldwide, 28 percent more than the 2.34 million parts produced in 1999. Since two copies of each design typically are made, that means about 1.5 million separate parts were created last year.
``To some, this is a staggering number of parts being produced from a class of technology that has been available for little more than a decade,'' Wohlers said.
Direct manufacturing is the next horizon. Instead of just making a model, a few companies are using rapid prototyping to make highly specialized, finished parts such as braces to straighten teeth, or aerospace components.
As materials evolve and the technology improves, direct manufacturing will grow, Wohlers said.
``It will support the movement toward mass customization, where ultimately, a production run will consist of a single part,'' he said.
The biggest machinery maker, 3D Systems of Valencia, Calif., wants to stay on that cutting edge.
``We're not going to be competing against rapid prototyping, as much as we're going to be competing against traditional tooling, machining and injection molding, making parts right from our machines,'' said 3D spokesman Jeff Krins.
At the DTM booth, Charles Conner, marketing communications manager, said, ``We saw good, solid growth, and we're excited about the new opportunities to direct manufacturing.''
Wohlers also said the trend of lower machinery prices would continue in 2001 and 2002 - drawing in more first-time buyers.
Urge to merge
3D Systems wants to buy rival DTM of Austin, Texas, to form a company with $150 million in sales. 3D has secured financing for the $45 million deal - but the Justice Department threw up a roadblock by filing an antitrust lawsuit June 6.
The government claims merging the two companies ``would result in higher prices and less innovation.'' 3D Systems and DTM are the leading companies in rapid prototyping equipment. Competition between the two ``has been the driving force behind the development of innovative [rapid prototyping] system technology,'' the Justice Department said. The combined company would control 80 percent of the U.S. market, the lawsuit said.
In response to the suit, 3D Systems announced it has extended the expiration date of its tender offer for all outstanding shares of DTM common stock until midnight June 18. The tender was scheduled to expire June 7. The companies will use the extra time to consider alternatives and prepare for a defense.
Executives of both companies denounced the government's suit as being ``without merit'' and said they plan to fight.
The strong North American market attracted two new machinery players at Rapid Prototyping & Manufacturing 2001. EOS GmbH of Munich, Germany, was making its U.S. trade show debut.
``We have not sold anything in the U.S. at the moment,'' said Udo Behrendt, sales director for North America.
EOS displayed some unusual parts at its booth. One was a large, hollow automotive fuel tank made by laser sintering of plastic. The tank was made in one piece, not from several parts glued together.
``We do really functional parts,'' Behrendt said.
EOS also makes machines that do laser sintering of sand cores and direct metal sintering.
EOS was founded in Germany in 1989, but another exhibitor, from Israel, is brand new. Objet Geometries Ltd.. is selling a 3-D printer, the Quadra, for $69,000.
In May, the 3-year-old company in Rehovot, Israel, opened a U.S. office in Mountainside, N.J.
Instead of a laser, the Quadra uses an ink-jet printer to apply layers of an acrylic-based photopolymer, according to Joseph Kowen, vice president of marketing. The polymer is cured by exposure to ultraviolet light.
Typical parts made by 3-D printers can be brittle, but the Objet printer turns out models that are strong and can sport very thin walls, Kowen said.