By Jamie J. Gooch
Rapid is a relative term. What was once fast now seems slow. The horse and buggy gave way to steam power, and steam power to internal combustion, just as hand-written letters gave way to email. Now even email takes too long for my text-happy daughter and her friends.
Manufacturing speed has increased as well, but that speed increase has largely relied on economies of scale. The assembly line was a triumph of manufacturing efficiency in 1908, and has since allowed companies to quickly turn out everything from Model Ts to computer workstations in massive quantities with great efficiency. Nowadays, robotic arms can pick hundreds of parts from a high-speed conveyor belt each minute. But, when you add in the time it takes to place a part order, get it queued onto a production line, build a widget and ship it to a customer, that’s still too slow for many people today.
At first, those hurried people were mainly design engineers who wanted a few quick prototypes. They didn’t need 1,000 widgets, just a few to test a design. Computer numerical control (CNC) machines and 3D printers filled the gap between fast, extremely short run prototyping and assembly line manufacturing. But that’s just the beginning.
Some technologies take time to really get up to speed. The computers we rely on so heavily today, for instance, stem from roots in the 1940s. The term “personal computer” was coined more than 35 years ago. Now they’re ubiquitous.
It’s easy to postulate that the same thing will happen with rapid technologies, such as 3D printers and even personal CNC machines. Progress has made the equipment faster and cheaper, and the basic software free and easy to use. Visionaries have predicted personal manufacturing machines in every office for decades. Could 2012 be the year we look back on as rapid tech’s big breakthrough?
Desktop Engineering has covered rapid technologies for more than 15 years. It’s exciting for us to see articles about 3D printing in mainstream media like The New York Times and read comments of disbelief under YouTube videos showing 3D printing in action. We can feel a shift in the wind, both from engineering firms whose eyes have opened to the benefits of rapid technologies and from an eager and vast consumer market.
To support an even wider acceptance and use of rapid technologies, we’ve launched a new site called Rapid Ready Technology. The site is designed to provide insights and information on different additive manufacturing technologies, materials and types of equipment — from entry-level 3D printers used by hobbyists to 3D production systems used by leading global manufacturers. But we will not ignore other tools that can help quickly create physical prototypes, parts and products from digital files, including custom subtractive manufacturing, 3D scanning and reverse engineering software. Our goal is to get you ready for the hardware, software, materials and services that allow you to rapidly make digital designs physical.
A Bright Future
Perhaps the most amazing thing about rapid tech is that, despite how impressive the technology already is, it still has a lot of room to grow. More and more companies are realizing the value of rapid prototyping, and consumers’ imaginations have already been captured by the idea of downloading and printing their own products. Direct manufacturing is a long way from displacing mass production, but it is making a real difference in speed and cost savings for certain applications.
Rapid manufacturing is already being used to rebuild bones on an individual patient basis. Creative people are exploring 3D printing as a new medium for everything from sculptures to jewelry to gourmet meals. Global manufacturers are using it to create specialized jigs needed for mass production. Other manufacturers who sell a few hundred or a few thousand high-end products per year are realizing they can use rapid tech to replace some traditional manufacturing methods.
These are just a few examples of prototyping and low-volume manufacturing scenarios that are perfect for rapid technologies. You can find more examples on page 14 and on rapidreadytech.com.
We hope you’ll share some of your own stories on how rapid prototyping and manufacturing is changing the way you work, and let us know what you’d like to see on the site. You can contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. It may not be as fast as a text message, but we’ll respond rapidly.
Jamie Gooch is the managing editor of Desktop Engineering. Send comments about this subject to DE-Editors@deskeng.com.