A Year Filled With Promising R&D

Despite a challenging year, the RP industry has continued its research and development of new products, processes, materials and applications.

"Perspectives" is a column co-authored by Terry Wohlers. The following was published 
in the November/December 2002 issue of Time-Compression Technologies magazine.

The rapid prototyping (RP) industry certainly had its share of challenges, disappointments and bad news in 2001 and 2002. Much of this suffering resulted from a reduction in product development budgets in companies of all sizes and across many industries. In spite of decreased spending by its customers, the RP industry did not follow their lead. Instead, the industry has continued its research and development of new products, processes, materials and applications.

An impressive number of R&D projects are underway in organizations of all sizes around the world. This is truly the good news of the past year, for it demonstrates the commitment to and viability of RP technologies. With some of the funding for these efforts coming from private investors and government agencies, it is clear that those outside of the RP industry also believe in the technology. These investments in RP development promise to yield dividends well into the future.

R&D Projects

To illustrate how much good news came from the past one to two years, below is a sampling of the R&D projects going on in the U.S., Europe, Asia and other parts of the world.

The Department of Defense (DoD) is funding Extrude Hone's ProMetal division (Irwin, PA) to develop and integrate its metal inkjet printing process for the repair and replacement of parts for navy ships and submarines. The Office of Naval Research is sponsoring the $10.8 million project. In all, more than $20 million has been committed to ProMetal R&D in partnerships with DoD, MIT, the National Science Foundation, the Fraunhofer Society and several corporations.

The largest RP-related program within DoD and its Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is the Mesoscopic Integrated Conformal Electronics (MICE) program. Its goal is to develop direct-write technologies for rapid prototyping and manufacturing of miniaturized mesoscale electronics on any surface. Optomec (Albuquerque, NM), the manufacturer of Laser Engineer Net Shaping (LENS), is working under the MICE program to develop Maskless Mesoscale Materials Deposition (M3D). Its objective is to produce a process that permits the manufacture of very compact and lightweight electronic systems. The four-year program is valued at $9 million.

This company based in Burbank, CA is commercializing technology developed at the University of Southern California. The process, named Electrochemical Fabrication (EFAB), is based on electroplating techniques for producing metal parts from the micron scale to the mesoscale of a few millimeters. In July 2002, the company announced that it had raised $5.7 million in funding. This is in addition to the $12.5 million raised in 2001.

Concept Laser
Less than a year after the announcement at EuroMold 2001, Concept Laser GmbH, a Hofmann company in Germany, has six machines running: two in-house and four at beta customer sites. The process uses a YAG laser for building 100 percent dense parts in stainless steel powder. The technology combines laser sintering, laser marking and laser machining in a single machine.

Speed Part AB
This Swedish company has developed and patented a new RP technology. The process uses infrared lamps to sinter layers of plastic powder through a mask printed on a glass plate. The fusing process for each layer takes about one second, and the entire cycle time for a layer is estimated at just 10 seconds. It is anticipated that this machine will sell for one-third the cost of existing laser-based sintering machines.

Arcam AB
This company, also of Sweden, is developing an approach called Electron Beam Melting (EBM). EBM uses an electron beam gun to melt metal powder. Unlike current sintering systems, EBM delivers the direct fabrication of steels to 99.5 percent density. The machine is named the EBM S12 and it sells for $500,000.

Envision Technologies
At EuroMold 2001, Envision Technologies of Germany showed its Perfactory RP machine. The technology uses acrylate photopolymer and Digital Light Processing (DLP) technology from Texas Instruments. The projected image from the DLP light source represents the cross-section that is being solidified in photopolymer. Visible light is projected from underneath, so the build platform is above the build area instead of below. The machine images an entire layer at once for layer cycle times of 10 to 15 seconds. The approximate price of Perfactory is $50,000.

This Israeli company is developing a machine that laminates thin layers of plastic to form parts. The small desktop machine uses a knife mounted to an x-y plotter mechanism to cut sequential layers from a spool of plastic material. The layers are bonded with a solvent. The manufacturer expects to offer PVC, ABS and polycarbonate.

Beijing Yinhua
This company, whose full name is Beijing Yinhua Laser Rapid Prototypes Making and Mould Technology Company Ltd., was launched from Tsinghua University of Beijing, China. The company-university effort is developing several systems, including machines for medical applications. One machine builds porous scaffold structures for tissue engineering and cell generation. Two years of testing on 105 rabbits and 42 dogs have shown compelling results. Separately, Tsinghua University is developing a process and stereolithography system for the creation of clear plastic aligners to straighten human teeth. The process is similar to the Invisalign process from Align Technology here in the U.S.

Shanghai Union Technology
This Chinese company is developing and selling three stereolithography machines that differ in laser power and build volume. Another class of machine from the company is a concept modeler that uses a 100-watt short arc mercury lamp to cure resin that is produced in-house.

Wuhan Binhu Mechanical & Electrical Co.
Huazhong University of Science & Technology in Whuhn, Hubei, China, launched this company. The organization is developing and selling machines that are similar to laser sintering from 3D Systems (Valencia, CA) and EOS and LOM from Cubic Technologies (Carson, CA). The university RP center, consisting of 120 people, is likely the largest RP research and development group in the world.

Other highlights of the past year include (listed at random):

If only all of the development projects could be discussed and listed. With so many exciting developments underway, the future of rapid prototyping is bright. Indeed, the industry is certain to thrive and expand over time. The ultimate challenge will be to determine which developments are most likely to succeed and how that success translates into new opportunities for your company.