In a town known for garish extravagance, it's rare to see and find a really good deal. But when Stratasys (Eden Prarie, MN) announced a price tag of $29,900 for its Dimension "3D printing" machine on Feb. 18, the crowd at the SolidWorks World trade show here took notice. It uses two blends of ABS plastic to create durable parts fast.
"Previously, parts were too fragile, so you could only test for form. Now, with ABS, you can test for fit and function, too," says Mary Stanley, Stratasys' product manager for 3D Printers. In fact, you can paint, sand, mill, or drill the finished model, she adds.
Stanley's not the only one pointing out that making this technology available to everyone could put a serious dent in the design cycle. At Daratech's annual conference on Feb. 25, the analyst group's president, Charles Foundyller, singled out rapid prototyping as one of just three "killer apps" for the coming year.
And on March 4, Z Corporation (Burlington, MA) announced a competing 3D Printer for $33,500. Its Z400 model is made to target small businesses, architects, education, and multiple installments at large businesses. The company says a cell phone design can be turned from a CAD design on-screen into an appearance prototype in less than an hour, for under $10.
The technology of creating 3D models out of CAD files is not new, but until now it's been too expensive for everyday use by small design firms. A typical, high-end rapid prototyping machine will produce great parts, but sells for $300,000 to $400,000. A 3D printing machine is faster and requires less training to use, and offers slightly lower-quality parts for about $45,000 to $70,000 (Stratasys' Prodigy machine sells for $65,000). And the alternative—sending jobs out to service bureaus—works for very small runs, but at up to $800 per part, prohibits experimentation.
So Stratsys' Dimension machine is designed to be used casually by engineers, in their own office. That provided an extra design challenge, because an office machine couldn't emit any outgassing or odors, couldn't use lasers or caustic materials, and required close temperature control.
The company met these demands by building parts from two blends of ABS—a mold material and a support material (which breaks away afterwords). "It's fused deposition modeling; basically extrusion," Stanley says.
Also on display at SolidWorks World was another way to link your CAD models to the real world—reverse engineering. RevWorks 2001, from Revware (Raleigh, NC), works in SolidWorks to create parametric, solid models out of point cloud data.
Scanning a turbine blade, it comes up with 50,000 data points; more than SolidWorks could process, but just enough for the software to extract features and create a history-based, parametric CAD model, not merely a "dumb box," says company president Ron Weavil.
It's especially useful for companies that are maintaining very old products, legacy parts that never had CAD models, or lost parts. "One of our biggest problems is that people don't know you can do that," he says.
The software does not compete with high-end products like Raindrop Geomagic (Research Triangle Park, NC) or Paraform (Santa Clara, CA); it sells for under $5,000. That works fine for Dave Dobbins from Digitrac (North Augusta, SC), which sells a package solution of RevWorks software, KDS computers, and the FaroArm point-scanning device.
"This is my meal ticket; if someone else comes out with a better solution tomorrow, I'll use it. But today RevWare is the best," Dobbins says. He got one job after winning a bidding war for twice the hourly rate as his competition, but half the total cost. "Now you tell me what that says," he asks. The answer is efficiency.