Rapid prototype parts made through three-dimensional printing are becoming more and more mainstream for a variety of North American manufacturers, even smaller companies.
While the parts - made through stereolithography, laser sintering and other methods - were once common only for the largest manufacturers, lower prices and smaller sizes are making them a viable alternative for nearly everyone.
Companies now can buy a 3-D system for $20,000-$40,000, said consultant Terry Wohlers of Wohlers Associates Inc. in Fort Collins, Colo. Wohlers was interviewed May 2 at the Society of Manufacturing Engineers' Rapid 2007 conference in Detroit.
In 2006, manufacturers bought 4,165 of the units, up from 157 when they first appeared 18 years ago, said Wohlers, whose ``Wohlers Report 2007'' tracks sales of the rapid prototyping equipment. More than two-thirds of the growth has come in the past four years, he said.
``It cuts across so many different industries,'' Wohlers said. ``With these lowered prices, a lot of smaller companies are investing.''
And equipment makers see the potential for even more growth in North America as use of rapid prototyping equipment matures.
The machines easily can turn out a few hundred - or even a few thousand - parts ready for use, Wohlers said. That makes them practical for low-volume production targeting the medical, dental and aerospace industries. Even jewelry manufacturers are looking at ways to use low volume, he said.
Germany's EOS GmbH used its own laser sintering to make 23 different parts in its new Formiga P 100, said Alex Dick, application engineer for the firm based in Munich.
EOS is targeting the U.S. for much of its growth, said Peter Klink, executive vice president of global sales and support.
Last year, the company registered $71 million in global sales, but its presence in North America has been little more than a curiosity so far, Klink said. It has 480 laser sintering machines in use in Europe and 120 in Asia. In North America there are only 42 used.
More than 77 percent of the prototype equipment machines sold in the U.S. in 2006 came from Stratasys Inc. of Eden Prairie, Minn., and Z Corp. of Burlington, Mass., Wohlers said.
With the introduction of the Formiga to North America during Rapid 2007, EOS is beefing up its offerings and its sales and technical experience in the region.
``We are growing rapidly in North America,'' said James Fendrick, vice president for North America.
The Formiga has a compact footprint, measuring 3-feet-by-4-feet and 6 feet tall, and turns out prototypes with different nylon resin blends.
Laser sintering is a top choice to move from prototypes to low-volume production, Wohlers said, along with Stratasys' FDM technology. He expects rapid manufacturing - also called digital manufacturing for its ability to move directly from computer designs to finished parts - to be the next major growth area for 3-D printers.