By Susan Smith
With the New Year well under way, New Year’s resolutions made with not enough chance to be broken yet, it’s a good time to look at what is up and coming in the field of rapid prototyping.
Do the experts have any predictions?
Todd Grimm, president of T. A. Grimm & Associates in Edgewood, Kentucky, an independent consulting firm, had some things to say about the year ahead for rapid prototyping. “There is nothing in my mind that promises to be earth shattering, but there is enough going on in different camps,” he said. “It will be exciting to see how it plays out.”
From prototyping to manufacturing to low end printers to high end systems, from plastics to metals, Grimm said it will be a positive year overall, but not because of any one thing.
Low Cost Systems
Grimm pointed out a possible trend: commercialization of two low cost systems in early 2008 – one from 3D Systems and one from Desktop Factory, both promised at below $10,000.
Although this could change the market in a positive way, Grimm said he is not convinced that price is the only issue. “There’s a lot more that goes into the decision making process of ‘do I or don’t I’ adopt rapid prototyping. Price is big but not the only decision criteria.” For this reason, Grimm will wait for the low cost systems to be released and prove themselves before declaring their introduction as a successful continuation of the downward trend in price.
One possibility is that the advent of these two low cost systems might bring forth new types of users who have always wanted to do RP internally but haven’t been able to afford it.
2007 ushered in new classes of materials with some big advances.
The latest announcements of new materials are very exciting to the industry. “I‘m pleased to see these announcements because they show that vendors are investing R&D dollars to further advance the materials. It is absolutely critical that materials keep going forward.”
Grimm cited the 2007 announcement of Objet’s new Digital Materials, which he has written about for DE (see Special RP&M section, February 2008, p. 50). “The technology allows you to take two of their photopolymers and combine them on the fly to make a unique third material, which means you can make a single part with multiple material characteristics, not previously available in the plastics world.”
Direct Digital Manufacturing (DDM)
“DDM is still new and very immature with respect to technology adoption, but it’s getting some traction and people are starting to take it seriously,” said Grimm. “We might see some interesting DDM developments in 2008.”
The wild card, Grimm said, is the economy. RP, and prototyping in general, tends to be treated as a discretionary item, “When money gets tight, prototyping becomes optional.”
Grimm predicts that if the economy is down and investments in prototypes and prototyping equipment are impacted, people may turn to virtual prototyping, such as that which Autodesk has been promoting.
“I really don’t believe virtual prototyping will replace physical prototyping,” Grimm said. “It’s not ideal to interface with a digital representation throughout the entire process. Yet, virtual prototyping will take away some of the physical prototyping.”
People may also turn to the low cost systems during a declining economy. “If someone feels they need RP during a recession, obviously they’ll be more likely to consider low cost systems, and now they’ll have an option below $10K. For those companies using service bureaus, it can be difficult to rationalize spending money on external services when budgets are tight. So they may opt to spend a little from the capital budget to buy a low cost system.”
Service bureaus will be affected by downturns in the market, but the change is not permanent, said Grimm. “Once people make the shift, they tend to be slow going back to the old way of doing things. So if we start to see a decline in service bureau work, , we probably have about three years before we get back to where we are in the service bureau market.”
“I think it’s short sighted for people to slash a prototyping budget, but it does happen since the expense is easy to measure but the value is not.”
In spite of possible economic downturns, Grimm feels positive about the RP industry. “Rapid prototyping is healthy, vibrant and moving forward, yet still not as popular or as widely used as I’d like to see it,” said Grimm. “There is still a lot of room for growth.
From low cost systems, to materials, from prototyping to DDM, Grimm said the RP market demonstrates a resilience and ability to morph to accommodate whatever changes may come down the pike.