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The Choice Is Yours
Today in the U.S., there are 57 rapid prototyping machines and more than 70 materials from which to choose. If it has been more than a year since you last investigated your alternatives, it is time to take another look, or a first look, at rapid prototyping technology.
Nearly 20 years ago, those who wanted a rapid prototyping system had one option-the stereolithography process from 3D Systems. Into the early 1990s, the company's product line included only one machine, the SLA 250, and one material, SL5081.
Today, options abound. In the United States, There are 57 machines and more than 70 materials from which to choose. The vast number of rapid prototyping solutions allows the technology to address the needs, wants and desires of a much larger segment of the industrial market. Of the 57 machines, 12 have been introduced in the past year.
So, if it has been more than a year since you last investigated your alternatives, it is time to take another look, or a first look, at rapid prototyping technology. Change is occurring at a rapid pace, and this means that the likelihood of finding a fitting solution for your applications is high.
Something for Everyone
Since the end of 2005, there have been many announcements of new machines, technology advancements and new materials. This is not a unique occurrence, and in fact, this has been a trend over the past 18 months. The pace of development has quickened to the point that it seems that new announcements are a monthly occurrence.
The rapid pace of change has yielded a rapid prototyping marketplace where there seems to be something for everyone. For the budget conscious, there are three systems below $20,000. For those who demand high throughput, there are an increasing number of large-format systems. For those who have demanding material requirements, there is now a huge array of materials for most rapid prototyping technologies, and the age of direct metals has begun.
Rapid prototyping has reached a level of maturity where the equipment and material manufacturers are shifting from technology-driven product development to market-driven strategies. Gone are the days of one-size-fits-all. Many of the recent advances target the needs of a specific application or an underserved segment of the market. This creates new options and new opportunities.
Announcements and Advancements
The 3D printer segment continues to make rapid prototyping increasingly accessible with lower prices. Earlier this year, the price of a Dimension broke the $20,000 barrier with a price decrease to $18,900. Not surprisingly, Z Corporation followed suit with a price drop to $19,900 for its ZPrinter 310 Plus, and 3D Systems continued the trend with a new low of $14,900 for its desktop 3D printer, the InVision LD.
Price is not the only news in the 3D printer segment. In April, Stratasys announced two new, larger machines. The Dimension BST 1200 and Dimension SST 1200 have 50 percent larger build envelopes than the previous models and a 20 percent decrease in build time. Not to be outdone, Z Corporation has made significant strides with its technology. The Spectrum 510 and ZPrinter 310 Plus boast improved resolution, better surface finish, faster processing times and higher green strength of the parts. Once viewed as a concept modeler that delivered acceptable review models quickly, the machines from Z Corporation have made significant strides in advancing the quality of the output while continuing to accelerate the prototyping process.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, 3D Systems' advances in stereolithography and selective laser sintering are addressing the desire for large format machines that provide high throughput or address the needs for very large parts. With their introduction of the Viper Pro and SinterStation Pro machines, it appears that 3D Systems believes that future demand will be for the large format machines that can handle lots of prototypes or deliver the throughput requirements for rapid manufacturing.
Industry has been seeking solutions for metal parts since the earliest days of rapid prototyping. While alternatives existed in past years, there were challenges and limitations. However, Arcam's S400 (distributed by Stratasys) and EOS's M 270 have overcome many of the issues, and this makes direct metal technology much more feasible. These two machines offer fully dense metal parts with properties similar to wrought materials. The Arcam EBM (electron beam melting) and EOS DMLS (Direct Metal Laser-Sintering) processes make parts in titanium, stainless steel and cobalt chrome.
Believing that one size does not fit all, Stratasys, with both its proprietary FDM (Fused Deposition Modeling) technology and the PolyJet technology that it distributes, has announced many new machines to offer a greater variety of options. With its Vantage and Titan FDM systems, Stratasys has a range of machine configurations that give buyers a choice of build envelope size and materials that can be processed. At last count, there are five flavors of these " T-Class" systems. This breadth also extends to the PolyJet process. The Eden family of machines now encompasses five models that offer varying build envelopes, resolution and layer thicknesses.
For some, the advancements are designed to improve operations or quality. Solidscape and Envisiontec have announced performance enhancements. Somewhat quietly, Solidscape has been working behind the scenes to increase its throughput. In each of the past two years, the company has announced 100 percent improvements in the speed of the build process. This means that more of the industrial community can consider the advantages of the resolution and precision possible with the company's technology. Conversely, Envisiontec, which has always had a reputation for speed, has announced the Perfactory III. This new system has an upgraded DLP light engine that offers higher resolution, crisper details and a larger build area.
While there has been no recent release of breakthrough technology, it is obvious that the industry is advancing and that this progress means more options and more choices for engineering and manufacturing applications.
With the Good Comes Some Bad
The large number of new machines and technological advancements that have been announced has created a couple of new problems. It has become a challenge to stay abreast of the new developments, and it has become more difficult to understand the differences between technologies and the advantages of a given machine.
Industry experts that lead their companies' rapid prototyping efforts comment that they are somewhat uniformed in the developments outside of there field of interest. There is so much new information that that these professionals find that they focus on their current needs and interests instead of the industry as a whole. For those who shoulder responsibilities beyond rapid prototyping, the challenge to stay informed is even greater.
In his Business Week Top Ten Book of the Year, "The Paradox of Choice," Barry Schwartz illuminates the quandary that too many choices can create. While we all want multiple options so that we can have a solution that best fits our needs, too many choices can create confusion, consume time and foster uncertainty. Schwartz indicates that two possible outcomes are indecision or opting to make no decision at all.
While the vast array of machines and material can be overwhelming, do not let this dissuade you from adopting new rapid prototyping systems. Don't let the multitude of options persuade you to stay status quo with existing processes. Relish the opportunities that you have been given and capitalize on the tremendous advantages that rapid prototyping offers.
For more information, please contact Todd Grimm, Grimm and Associates, Inc. (Edgewood, KY) at (859) 331-5340 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or email at email@example.com.
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