Rapid prototyping has enjoyed strong growth over the past few years, and it is showing no signs of slowing. While still a bit shy of a being mainstream technology, it is steadily progressing to that end. And it is the growing variety of options that will stimulate the increasing adoption of this engineering tool — moving it ever closer toward being a must-have process.
Due, in part, to the relative newness of rapid prototyping, diversity and variety are the common themes. To address the needs of a broad spectrum of industries, companies and products, vendors continue to introduce an increasing number of technologies, systems and materials. In the U.S., there are more than 50 machines from which to choose, and there are nearly 100 materials to use in these rapid prototyping devices.
Starting at just $14,900–with a promise of a $5,000 to $7,500 machine before the end of the year–sales of 3D printers are brisk. Yet, the manufacturers know price can be trumped by capability. Rapid prototyping vendors are introducing a large number of high-end, sophisticated machines. With price tags of $60,000 to $850,000, these high-end systems deliver a greater number of options in materials, larger capacity, higher throughput and increased user control when compared to the low-cost alternatives.
"The overarching trend in rapid prototyping is diversity, which offers a variety of solutions to fit the needs of an expanding base of industries and applications," says Todd Grimm, industry consultant. Yet, within this drive to offer choice, there are three strong trends in the industry. Grimm says, "At the recent Rapid Prototyping & Manufacturing show, produced by the Society of Manufacturing Engineers (SME), there was a lot of talk about 3D printers, direct metal technologies and advanced materials."
Leveraging low price, 3D printers continue their rapid growth, catching the eye of many who have been waiting for a solution that meets their needs while protecting the budget. Proven to be a viable tool, not a poor substitute, these devices are finding their way into companies of all size and are being incorporated into many educational curriculums. Falling prices and new machines have made this a dynamic segment of the rapid prototyping market.
At the show, the new class of high-end systems that produce fully dense, metal parts received a lot of attention. These machines push the technology well beyond form, fit and function while addressing the demand for the abundance of parts not made of plastic. The thought of producing one-off parts in stainless steel or titanium, without any tooling, proved to be a strong desire for many of the aerospace, automotive, medical and consumer products companies in attendance.
Metals also play a part in the third trend, advancements in materials. Across the board, the number of material options has swelled. This comes as no surprise since users and prospective users have stated that material properties are their number one criteria. From plastics to metals, the breadth of material choice and range of physical properties is breaking down one of the biggest barriers to the adoption of rapid prototyping.
"These advancements will prove to be the key to significant growth in the rapid prototyping industry in the years to come," Grimm reports.