November 06, 2006
Rapid Manufacturing Coming On Strong
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Jeff Rowe - Managing Editor

by Jeff Rowe - Contributing Editor
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Rapid Manufacturing (RM), the technique of creating production-grade parts directly for end-use with rapid prototyping equipment can provide speed and lifetime cost benefits over traditional manufacturing techniques, such as injection molding, for some products.

This was the conclusion of product-development expert, Terry Wohlers, following an in-person visit to RedEye RPM -- the world's largest rapid prototype and part-building service (a business unit of Stratasys). Wohlers is president of Wohlers Associates, a design and manufacturing consulting firm, operating since 1986.

"Rapid manufacturing is finding its way into many industries. The possibilities seem limitless," states Wohlers on his corporate blog site.

In reference to his visit, Wohlers' blog reads, "(RedEye RPM) is attracting far more rapid manufacturing jobs than anyone at the company had envisioned. RedEye RPM is offering unparalleled FDM capacity. I was impressed that the company had produced 60,000 parts for customers over the past three years and now has over 60 machines dedicated to its operation."

RedEye RPM services clients in industries such as aerospace, electronics, consumer, automotive and medical products. "Our first major rapid manufacturing order came from a company that produces specialized camera parts," says RedEye sales manager, Jeff Hanson. "This customer has ordered nearly 2,000 PC/ABS parts to date, and we expect them to order many more. This really changed the mindset at RedEye when we saw the potential for these types of orders, and we realized that we could eliminate tooling for some applications. We also built 4,800 polycarbonate parts for a company that develops hand-held medical devices for cardiac surgeons," says Hanson. "In addition,
the U.S. military ordered 400 PC/ABS battery-pack components for flashlights mounted to M16s. The traditional molding companies had to turn down the order because they couldn't meet the tight deadline."

Rapid manufacturing, also known as layered or direct digital manufacturing, best serves those customers who need custom or short-run production parts. "Our service and the technology is ideal for companies producing low volumes of parts, where expensive tooling is not desirable," says Hanson.

In addition to short runs, RM can provide a competitive edge for small to mid-sized manufacturers who:
  • Require bridge manufacturing while waiting for tooling.
  • Manufacture jigs and fixtures.
  • Require rapid turnaround of 2-5 days. (Alpha and beta product launches, for example, require a very small total production but very fast turnaround time.)
  • Need parts that utilize complex geometries with negative angles, undercuts, thin walls or complex injection molded parts. It's also appropriate for parts without draft angles or ejector pin placements, or those with critical dimensional stability requirements.
  • Need to conserve capital for cash flow.
  • Conduct continuous design iterations during feasibility and market validation studies. Rapid manufacturing parts allow engineers and manufacturers to design, build and test their parts as many times as necessary.
  • For more information about rapid manufacturing go to

    RedEye RPM, a business unit of Stratasys, Inc., is a rapid prototyping and rapid manufacturing facility. It utilizes high-end rapid prototyping equipment to build CAD designs using durable high-performance engineering materials. RedEye RPM also provides automated, instant quoting and ordering.


    by Jeffrey Rowe, Editor

    Rapid manufacturing is another one of those technologies that for years has promised to be the "next big thing." Well, I've been hearing that for a number of years now, and its fruition still seems to be "right around the corner," or "just wait until it takes off - next year." However, this time it might be poised to finally live up to its billing and fulfill its promise as it becomes more widely used and accepted.

    In my mind, rapid manufacturing (RM), also known in some circles as direct manufacturing, is an extension of rapid prototyping (RP) because it is a broad term that includes the use of rapid prototyping, rapid tooling, and the direct use of additive manufacturing technologies for quickly producing parts and products. The term also refers to the process of fabricating parts directly for end-use, where the key here is end-use. Very generally, rapid manufacturing can provide an advantage in speed and cost overhead compared to alternative metal manufacturing techniques, such as powder metallurgy, die casting, or plastic mold production.

    Like rapid prototyping, rapid manufacturing has historically been geared more to the early development, pre-production, or validation phases of the product development lifecycle. However, I am hearing from service bureaus that activity in short-run rapid manufacturing is picking up. Service bureaus say that they are increasingly being asked to transition into short-run manufacturing rather than just single-shot rapid prototype parts.

    In this capacity, rapid manufacturing is being used to bridge gaps to full manufacturing production. With more companies trying to get products to market faster, they increasingly want to get a first run out while high-volume production manufacturing gears up. This represents a changing philosophy when companies in the recent past delayed manufacturing production for a variety of reasons.

    It seems that rapid manufacturing has found a nice niche for companies wanting lots of 1 to about 1,000 parts, custom manufacturing, and pilot product runs before building the tools to make larger quantities. Volume beta testing is another growth area that is employed before the ultimate shape or details have been finalized. Companies usually need dozens or hundreds of units for this purpose. Volume beta testing is becoming more popular because no one wants to invest in tooling unless they are assured a product has at least a chance of making it in the marketplace.

    Stratasys and other RP machine manufacturers are starting to see major expansion of the rapid manufacturing segment. This is attributable to the fact that up to a certain point, additive technology can be more economical than making injection molds for manufacturing plastic parts. Once you get into large-scale manufacturing, however, the reverse takes over. It's important to point out that to produce real products, rapid manufacturing must have the ability to use real end-use plastics and other materials that will stand up to the intended application in terms of cost, durability, and surface finish.

    If rapid manufacturing can overcome the hurdles of cost, speed, and improved surface finish of parts, watch it grow to large proportions. While rapid manufacturing does save up-front tooling costs, it has a high cost per part compared to injection molding, but improving the price/performance ratio should drop cost dramatically. Also, RP and RM have relatively slow throughput capacities compared to injection molding, but that, too, is improving.

    In a nutshell, rapid manufacturing is an evolving means for quickly transitioning from one-off prototypes to production manufacturing. With the competitive nature of manufacturing both today and into the future, the trend and growth curve for RM can only go one way - up.

    For its part, Stratasys has been around the block with the RP and RM products and services it offers. As a matter of fact, in 2005, the company installed 34 percent of all systems sold worldwide, according to the Wohlers Report 2006. Stratasys patented the rapid prototyping process known as fused deposition modeling (FDM). The process creates functional models or production parts directly from any 3D CAD program that can export STL files using ABS, polycarbonate, PPSF and other plastic blends. So, the company knows the business and its potential, and I'm sure is hoping that 2007 is the year that rapid manufacturing finally takes off.

    The Week's Top 5

    At MCADCafé we track many things, including the stories that have attracted the most interest from our subscribers. Below are the five news items that were the most viewed during last week.

    MSC.Software announced that its MD Nastran can now be deployed on Microsoft's Windows Compute Cluster Server 2003 to provide multidiscipline simulation on the desktops of the broader enterprise. With the combination of MD Nastran and Windows Compute Cluster Server (CCS), high-performance computing, which was once confined to the large government labs and research institutions, is becoming more widely available to designers and engineers as desktop programs -- allowing for shortened processing time and reduced costs. This approach provides a relatively simple, easy-to-deploy, and manage solution that addresses the high-performance computing needs associated with advanced aircraft design,
    automotive engineering, and manufacturing. The availability of MD Nastran on Windows CCS also allows use by a greater range of businesses, including SMBs.

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    -- Jeff Rowe, Contributing Editor.


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