The rapid prototyping industry is growing a robust 32% a year, but has not realized the potential first envisioned when it emerged in the 1980s. Complexity and cost of ownership slowed its growth. It became almost cult-like with enthusiasts obsessing on fine details of machine technology. The industry needs to do a better job of reaching out to design engineers. It could be a perfect fit. Many engineers, particularly in the medical device industry design what they need, and then have to make compromises because of manufacturing constraints. The additive fabrication developed originally to make prototypes now has the potential to bust those constraints wide open because no molds are used and complex internal geometries are easily achieved. I’m thinking, for example, of jaws made for surgical instruments. Now, they are often injection molded from powder metal. New additive technology now allows parts such as jaws to be from laser sintering with internal channels of almost any design. Sure there are some drawbacks: less than perfect surface finish out of he machine, weak industry-wide standards, and lack of closed loop machine controls. But this is a marriage waiting to happen.
NIST's new five-year strategic plan for its Material Measurement Laboratory lists additive manufacturing materials development as one of the main areas it will support by developing measurements, data, techniques, and models.
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