If two companies have their say, traditional mold making - the cutting of a block of steel or aluminum - could turn to powder.
Rapid prototyping leader 3D Systems Corp. and toolmaker POM Group Inc. of Auburn Hills, Mich., both have launched ventures to make production molds from metallic powder.
Using only a computer-aided-design file and no messy grinding machines, high-volume molds could be made in days instead of weeks.
The basics of the mold-making process have not changed much in a half century.
The equipment is faster and more automated, and CAD work has replaced most shop-floor draftsmanship. But mold building itself involves the same cut and grind.
POM and 3D, which both exhibited April 30 and May 1 at the Moldmaking 2003 Expo in Cleveland, are challenging that time-honored, time-consuming process. POM, using lasers to slice out a mold in an enclosed machine, wants to license and sell its equipment to others.
And Valencia, Calif.-based 3D is preparing to go commercial in June with a production-mold-ready system rooted in its selective laser sintering process. The company said its equipment now can make molds capable of producing as many as 1 million parts from one tool.
Those companies grabbed the attention of show-going toolmakers looking for any edge to remain competitive. One toolmaker who looked at both booths said they were the only truly revolutionary part of a staid industry - a powder keg of growth, so to speak.
``People worry about all the work going the way of China,'' said POM President Dwight Morgan at the show. ``But they don't think about the new technology here. The industry is not going to evaporate.''
3D Systems' selective laser sintering technology is not new, but it is being reworked for production molds. To date, it primarily has been used for roughed-out prototype parts and less-durable protototype molds, said Mark Kosek, business development manager for casting and tooling.
The new drive toward production molds began with 3D's purchase of DTM Corp. of Austin, Texas. The sale, completed in 2001, meshed two of the largest makers of rapid-prototyping equipment in North America.
The deal's linchpin was DTM's SLS process, used to make parts from plastic and composite materials. In a nutshell, the process spreads layers of powdered material in a cross-section across a sintering chamber.
The material is heated and fused and the part removed.
3D will add a device to the chamber that allows the use of more durable metal powder, similar in constitution to standard P20 mold steel but infiltrated with bronze in a chamber oven. Production molds can be completed in 36 hours or less, Kosek said.
The LaserForm material also can be used to make complex parts and mold inserts, slides and rails, Kosek said.
``It's lights-out manufacturing,'' added 3D Systems district manager J. Scott Hill. ``It's like submitting a [Microsoft] Word document for printing and then waiting for it to be finished.''
It also means no more casting and no more machining, Kosek said. The company now is asking people to refer to 3D as a solid-imaging company, not as a rapid prototyper.
Times change, Hill said.
And while rapid prototyping - including 3D's standard-issue stereolithography process - is a mainstay at many companies, growth for 3D could be in full-scale production molds, Hill said.
3D is banking that its new LaserForm material will give it a needed boost. The California company just finished an internal audit to evaluate some questionable accounting issues and has yet to file its annual report for last year. Management has been reconfigured, partly to improve financial practices.
POM has followed a different path. Started in 1998, the company developed a new tooling process that cuts steel by laser directly from a CAD file. The process, called direct metal deposition, is 10-40 percent faster that standard processes and can use a mixture of materials, said Brian Ziskie, POM business development vice president.
That enabled the company to move to a 40,000-square-foot plant in Auburn Hills two years ago and start making molds. Now that plant is jammed full, he said. The company is looking outside to spread its technology to others.
The first step was an agreement signed in January with Trumpf Group of Ditzengen, Germany, a holding company that is a leader in industrial lasers and laser systems. Trumpf will produce five-axis, computer numerically controlled machining centers for POM that use that Michigan company's laser-cutting process.
POM then will attempt to sell the machines to outside mold shops and license its technology, Morgan said. POM also will sell mold inserts in a new move, he said.
Four machines already have been installed at POM's Auburn Hills facility, with 10 more on order, Ziskie said.
The company already has applications in the medical, pharmaceutical and automotive markets and an exclusive agreement with Takata Seat Belts Inc. to supply tooling for injection molding. Last year, POM opened an office in San Antonio, where Takata makes those molded parts.
``We can do something that no one else is doing and increase productivity by 40 percent or more,'' Morgan said.
``In an industry where many companies have been forced to go out of business, our technology has helped us continue to expand. It keeps the industry competitive.''