Friday, May 11, 2001

Computer technology helping speed products to market

By Mike Boyer
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        A plethora of products — from new automobiles to cellphones with the latest features — is putting increasing pressure on product designers to come up with new designs and prototypes at an increasing pace.

        That need, coupled with the creation of three-dimensional designs with a computer, has given birth in the past dozen years to rapid prototyping technology. Using sophisticated machines, designers can generate detailed part or product models directly from three-dimensional computerized models.

[photo] Todd Grimm of Accelerated Technologies Inc. in Erlanger holds an industrial design model produced using one of ATI's rapid prototyping systems.
(Steven M. Herppich photo)
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        “Name your favorite company that produces consumer products — they make such a wide variety of products, and they have such a short life. So there's enormous pressure on product designers to turn out new products quickly,” said Terry Wohlers, who runs an industry consulting firm in Fort Collins, Colo.

        Cincinnati will become the center of the rapid prototyping world next week at the Society of Manufacturing Engineers' annual rapid prototyping and manufacturing conference, being held here for the first time.

        The three-day event, starting Monday at the Albert B. Sabin Cincinnati Convention Center, is expected to draw 2,000 industry experts from around the world and 150 companies displaying the latest in speeding new products to market.

        “The beauty of it is that all the rapid prototyping manufacturers and all the technologies are all in one place,” said Beth Israelnaim, supervisor of rapid prototyping services for medical products supplier BD Technologies and chairwoman of this year's event.

        Mr. Wohlers, who annually makes a “state of the industry” presentation at the conference, said the number of rapid prototyping systems in use grew 12 percent last year to 1,320 from 1,178. That's up from little more than 100 a decade ago.

        Worldwide, he says, there are 6,755 systems in use producing more than 3 million models and prototype parts annually.

        He estimates the worldwide market for rapid prototyping products and services is more than $600 million.

        What has fueled the growth?

        “Certainly, it's the development of the computer modeling tools,” he said. “If you don't have the three-dimensional modeling data to feed the systems, you're not going to build models.”

        Although there's a variety of rapid prototyping systems making models from plastic and other materials, all the equipment works on the same idea.

        “They take a computer-generated solid model, a three-dimensional shape, slice it up and print each slice out layer by layer,” he said.

        Producing a model directly from a solid model eliminates the expensive and time-consuming process of making molds and dies for each individual prototype.

        “You can easily drop $200,000 in a couple months just to produce a mold. With these machines, you don't have to do that. You can produce one part as inexpensively as 100,” Mr. Wohlers said.

        Ms. Israelnaim said her company was able to bring a new catheter to market six months faster than before using rapid prototyping.

        Mr. Wohlers said the cost of equipment is one of the biggest hurdles to wider use of the technology. Although some low-end systems sell for about $50,000, high-end manufacturing equipment can cost as much as $800,000.

        That's given rise to a number of companies that specialize in doing rapid prototyping for other manufacturers on a contract basis.

        One of the largest is Northern Kentucky's Accelerated Technologies Inc., formed in 1993 when Ellison Surface Technologies in Hebron acquired the operations of DTM Corp.

        ATI, which recently moved to its own 10,000-square-foot building in Erlanger and has operations in Austin, Texas, has more than a dozen rapid prototyping systems.

        Mr. Wohlers says one of the next frontiers for rapid prototyping is producing not just prototypes but actual finished parts.

        “We're at the very early stages of that, but that's exciting,” he said.


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