The rapid prototyping industry reversed its downward trend in 2003, as lower-end three-dimensional printers soared to become ``the crown jewel of the RP industry,'' said a report by Wohlers Associates.
The 3D printers look like an office copier. They use off-the-shelf ink-jet printer cartridges, cured by photo-polymer, to pump out prototypes.
``The growth [of 3D printers], it's really taken off 57 percent this past year,'' said Terry Wohlers, an RP consultant from Fort Collins, Colo., who spoke June 23 during the MoldMaking Expo 2004 conference in Cleveland. The mold show and conference was held in conjunction with Plastics Encounter Midwest.
The printers cost just $25,000-$50,000. In 2003, 3D printers topped the 1,000-unit mark for the first time in 2003, he said. A total of 1,864 rapid prototyping machines were sold.
According to the Wohlers Report, last year marked another milestone: China purchased 9.8 percent of all rapid prototyping machines, moving into the third spot and ahead of Germany (7.2 percent). Japan was second with 12.6 percent of all machines purchased. The United States, where most of the machines are made, remained the No. 1 market, buying 43.1 percent of all the equipment.
Wohlers said China is moving fast. He said 120 people work in research and development for RP at Huazhong University of Science and Technology, which is probably the largest research effort in the world.
A total of 28 companies built and sold about $500 million worth of rapid prototyping machines in 2003, he said.
Wohlers also outlined aggressive development work in the metals sector to do so-called direct manufacturing, which uses RP to build finished products. ``2003 was really the year of development in using RP for building metal parts,'' he said.
In June, Wohlers released another study, with Joe Greco, a computer-aided-design analyst, that said there were nearly 5 million seats worldwide for CAD solid modeling.