The rapid prototyping marketplace has undergone huge changes,
evolving into a robust market where prototypes are only an aspect of system usage. Prototyping remains a major application, but direct digital manufacturing has also become a solid market for these systems.
The global manufacturing trend toward customization and small lot production is creating a major opportunity for systems that can quickly build parts in many different configurations. That's a key benefit in applications like aerospace, where many parts such as air vents have unusual shapes. Building them using additive manufacturing techniques saves the time and expense of creating tooling. At the same time, these systems let engineers make alterations to improve design, something that's extremely difficult to do when hard tooling has been built.
The traditional marketplace for these systems isn't going away. Though simulation has dramatically reduced the number of prototypes being built these days, no amount of realism in computer displays can replace the visceral value of holding something in your hand.
Equipment makers are helping engineers get these models into their hands more easily, creating them more quickly with less effort. Ease-of-use is taking many forms. Equipment that runs more quietly can be placed closer to engineers' desks. Systems also feature bigger material containers, which eliminates the number of times storage bins need to be refilled.
These materials also offer continually improving performance characteristics. Metals are becoming more common, broadening the potential market. And both metals and plastics are offering a broader array of characteristics, with improved ruggedness.
Added together, these advances foretell continuing expansion of the market, helping engineers respond more quickly to ever-changing customer requirements.