Just how popular will rapid manufacturing get? Stratasys CEO and founder Scott Crump believes that its impact will huge. “I expect it will be bigger than 3D printing and rapid prototyping,” he says. “We have some pretty high expectations.” And the company is backing up those expectations with new materials and machines designed for rapid manufacturing—or “direct digital manufacturing” to use Stratasys' preferred name.
At the Rapid 2007 show, Stratasys announced that it has “formally entered” the rapid manufacturing business with new materials and machines capable of turning out production parts. Crump says that the company will roll out new Fused Deposition Modeling systems for manufacturing later this year. And the company has already come out with a stronger grade of its ABS material, which should also help in the transition to manufacturing. Called ABSplus, the new grade is about 40 percent stronger than the company's previous material when you consider all the relevant tensile, elongation and flexural properties. At the show, Stratasys ran the material on its latest prototyping machine, the FDM 200mc .
Crump didn't reveal too many details about the systems that will appear later this year. But he did hint that they will improve overall accuracy and part-to-part consistency. Those improvements will be crucial since more than a few classes of production parts—whether molded or machined—do have tolerance and repeatability needs that strain the capabilities of today's prototyping machines. “I think we've done a good job meeting the tolerance requirements required for prototyping applications, but manufacturing does raise the bar,” Crump says.
Don't think, though, that Stratasys hasn't already started to clear that bar. Crump revealed that about 11 percent of its high-end systems users already do some rapid manufacturing. In 2003, the percentage was only about two percent. What's more, he estimates that roughly 30 percent of Stratasys’ RedEye business now comes from production parts, rather than pure prototypes.
Among those who have used Stratasys machines to make real parts is Klock Werks, a custom motorcycle builder in South Dakota. The company has used FDM for some of the custom bike parts it puts on its own bikes and, now, sells to others. “We're too small to go out and build tooling for some of these parts,” says Brian Klock, the company's founder. Rapid manufacturing lets the company build just what they need. “If we only need 30 parts, we only make 30 parts,” says Klock.
His experience with direct digital manufacturing parts provides at least some anecdotal evidence as to how much abuse these ABS parts can take. One of Klock's custom Harley-based "bagger" bikes last year set a speed record at Bonneville Salt Flats. Driven by his fiance, Laura Ellifson, the bike reached a bone-rattling speed of more than 147 mph. The Stratasys plastic parts, and Laura, have held up just fine, according to Klock.