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.
At the JEC Europe 2015 composites show in Paris last month, makers of composite materials, software, and process equipment showed off their latest innovations. This year's show saw some announcements related to automotive applications, but many of the improvements came in the world of aerospace.
The DuPont-sponsored Plastics Industry Trends survey shows engineers want improved performance in a broad range of plastics and better recycling technology. These concerns top even processing enhancements that improve productivity.
Plastics leader SABIC recently announced a global initiative to help its customers take advantage of additive manufacturing (AM) and also advance 3D printing (3DP) technologies in several application areas. The company's plans go way beyond materials, and also include design, processing, and part performance.
A theme that was reflected in several ways at NPE 2015 was the use of 3D printing to assist in, or improve on, injection molding, as well as improvements in 3D printing materials and processes that are making better functional prototypes and end-use parts.
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