"Perspectives", a monthly column authored by
Todd Grimm for "Time-Compression Technologies."

This column was published in the
November/December 2004 issue. For more great articles,
visit the "Time-Compression Technologies'"
Web site at www.timecompress.com.



Truth Be Told

It is time for the industry to dispel rapid prototyping exaggerations before they impact the future of advanced applications like rapid manufacturing.

Overnight Prototypes, claimed an rapid prototyping advertisement in 1991. The headline grabbed attention, but it also created unreasonable expectations. At that time, a rapid prototype was typically delivered in three to seven days; the promise to deliver "overnight" only served to elevate expectations, create disgruntlement and fuel opposition.

Regrettably, 13 years of exaggerated claims about speed, quality, cost and labor have become self-defeating to the acceptance of rapid prototyping technology. Over the years, the industry has looked outward to find something to blame for impediments to its growth, but in truth the rapid prototyping industry has created its own barriers. It is time to tell the truth before exaggerated claims further impact the future of rapid manufacturing.

The Early Years

The bold claims of the early 1990s fueled disappointment and riled a powerful foe. In addition to the claim of being able to produce a prototype overnight, the industry forecasted billion-dollar economic growth and the demise of NC/CNC machining. By making these bold claims, the rapid prototyping industry evoked negative reaction from machine tool vendors, CAM vendors and-more importantly-the entire community of toolmakers and machinists.

Instead of positioning rapid prototyping as a complementary tool, it was positioned as a replacement to conventional techniques, which threatened the livelihood of manufacturing professionals. Understandably, those with vested interests fought back. Seeking ammunition to shoot down the new technology, the machine tool industry easily determined that the declaration of overnight prototypes was untrue.

Armed with proof of false allegations, the machining community, exposing the truth about speed, created doubt about all other claims, regardless of whether they were true. Considering the risk and expense of the new technology, most chose to avoid adopting rapid prototyping. Taking on the machine tool industry also forced the hand of the rapid prototyping vendors. Because the industry set its sights on the replacement of machining, rapid prototyping was forced to compete with machine tool vendors in areas such as accuracy, surface finish and material costs.

The Current Situation

Although rapid prototyping today actually can deliver overnight prototypes, other claims continue to be overstated. Perhaps the most notable, and most common, is the claim of consistent accuracy. Over the years, +/- 0.005 inch. (0.127 mm) has become a de facto standard for accuracy. Yet, systems cannot deliver this quality for every part and every feature on each prototype. (Although technologies exist that can consistently deliver this accuracy, these are limited to small parts or are constrained by excessively long build times.) As in earlier claims of overnight rapid prototyping, overstatements about accuracy are easily disproved, giving justification to those who oppose rapid prototyping technology.

The problem is that many of the claims have become accepted as standards that are used to evaluate the technology. When competing for the sale of an rapid prototyping system, vendors found it easier to adopt the exaggeration rather than educate the buyer. Service bureaus also found that, to be competitive, they had to promise the same level of quality as claimed by vendors. So, +/- 0.005 inch became the benchmark to measure technology, and it came to be seen as the truth.

This truth, however, is easy to disprove. Those who buy and use rapid prototyping are in technical disciplines that deal in facts. As soon as truth is shown to be fiction, the choices become: (1) expect some claims to be fiction and deal with the consequences; or (2) investigate and research each of the claims that have the potential to effect success.

Omissions, half-truths and exaggerations extend into all aspects of rapid prototyping technology-quality of surface finish, repeatability and material properties. There are omissions on material cost, acquisition expense and operating expense. Time is subject to half-truths on build speed, total leadtime and the amount of labor required to make a rapid prototype a showpiece.

Considering today's tight budgets and lean workforces, organizations have become more conservative. Doubting a product's claims is a serious barrier to adopting a new technology. Common human traits of resistance to change and risk aversion are fed by the inherent desire for job security. Even after 17 years, rapid prototyping is viewed as a risky new technology. Considering the current situations, many decision-makers seek to justify status quo and reject change.

The Work Environment

Next, consider the work environment in relation to exaggerations concerning rapid prototyping. Even for those who are interested in adopting rapid prototyping, the fear of surprises and the effort required to validate claims may cause them to avoid the technology. For those who are opposed to rapid prototyping, the prevalence of exaggerations offers ample justification to avoid adopting it. Many times, there is too much work, effort and risk to implement this new technology when so many unknowns exist.

For those who succeed in justifying rapid prototyping, imagine spearheading the initiative and promising deliverables and corporate gains only to find that the truth was fiction, that the desired results are not possible or are achievable only by expending significantly more labor, cost, time or secondary processes than planned. Imagine standing before management who authorized your purchase request and informing them that more is needed or less is possible. Imagine the alternative-making the technology work in any manner possible.

Exaggerated claims have created obstacles to the growth of rapid prototyping. Yet, as thousands of companies worldwide have shown, the technology is a powerful tool in design and manufacturing; it can return a positive ROI in a few months. Rapid prototyping's process is unique, and from that stems the ability to do things that were thought to be impossible and even unimaginable.

The Promise of rapid manufacturing

Rapid manufacturing is an emerging technology that holds tremendous promise. One half-truth that is accepted as fact but later found to be fiction causes serious damage, because that truth can be used as the rationale to maintain the status quo on the manufacturing floor. Moreover, a company's revenue stream and future can be put in jeopardy.

Rapid prototyping needs no embellishment; the technology delivers real benefits. However, prospective users require accurate information and expect the facts. With the truth, the rapid prototyping industry can flourish.


For more information contact Todd Grimm of T.A. Grimm & Associates, Inc. (Edgewood, KY) at (859) 331-5340 or via e-mail at tgrimm@tagrimm.com.

©2004 Communication Technologies, Inc., All Rights Reserved.
Reprinted from Time-Compression Technologies magazine. Contents cannot be reprinted without permission from the publisher.


Contact information:
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T. A. Grimm & Associates, Inc.
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Phone: (859) 331-5340      Fax: (859) 514-9721
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