Mastering the art of rapidly prototyping parts and products is vital for any corporation in the race to launch new products. During the last decade, new methods and tools have emerged to facilitate and accelerate product creation. Physical prototyping, in particular, has gained popularity with the help of a concept called "layered manufacturing" or "solid free form fabrication" (SFF).1 Although the majority of parts built by layered manufacturing are used for modeling purposes only, layered manufacturing already accounts for almost a half billion dollars of business worldwide and is growing rapidly (Wohlers 1996).

The United States pioneered development and commercialization of layered manufacturing systems; now, significant efforts in this area are underway in Europe and Japan, spurred by the obvious advantages of layered manufacturing's ability to rapidly create physical models regardless of shape complexity. A major research focus is direct manufacture of objects from materials such as metals, ceramics, and plastics that have properties similar to their traditionally manufactured counterparts. In addition, layered manufacturing appears to have the potential to build objects with shape complexity and material variety that previously have been impossible. Composite structures with embedded sensors and integrated circuits or complete functional assemblies are other potentially revolutionary areas of application.

In 1995 the U.S. government, encouraged by the Rapid Prototyping Association of the Society of Manufacturing Engineers (SME), initiated a study administered by the Japanese Technology Evaluation Center/World Technology Evaluation Center (JTEC/WTEC) to assess the capabilities of selected European countries and Japan in developing and implementing layered manufacturing technologies. The approach to this study was three-pronged: first, identify and study key foreign RP technologies and discover important new applications under development; second, evaluate and compare foreign competencies to those in the United States; and third, critically examine related standards.


Following are the major conclusions of JTEC/WTEC's panel of experts concerning the current status of rapid prototyping in Europe and Japan compared to the United States.

  1. The United States is ahead in technical innovations, materials, and manufacturing applications of layered manufacturing technology.

  2. In the area of machine design, the United States is in parity with Europe and Japan.

  3. In rapid prototyping for medical applications, U.S. efforts are distinctly behind those of Europe and Japan.

  4. Germany and Japan have implemented major domestic programs to systematically create an infrastructure of strategic RP technologies.

Comparison Chart

Following JTEC/WTEC tradition, the panel attempted to rank the relative strengths of and indicate current trends for several technical SFF categories in Europe, Japan, and the United States, as shown in Table E.1. Rankings like this tend to be controversial. These represent the majority view of the panel but were not necessarily supported unanimously.

Table E.1
Comparisons Between the United States, Japan, and Europe in Rapid Prototyping

Key to Table E.1


Process, Equipment, and Interfaces

Business Environment

Government Funding for Design and Manufacturing



Details concerning the sponsors, the panelists, and the sites visited by the panel are included in Chapter 1 of this report. Biographies of panelists are contained in Appendix A. The panel visited research and development organizations, government agencies, both users and manufacturers of SFF equipment, and material suppliers in Europe and Japan during October and December of 1995.


Wohlers, T. 1996. Rapid prototyping state of the industry: 1995-96 worldwide progress report. Society of Manufacturing Engineers Symposium, Dearborn, MI (April).

1 Although the term "rapid prototyping" (RP) encompasses more than "layered manufacturing" and "solid freeform fabrication," in this report these terms are used interchangeably.
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Published: March 1997; WTEC Hyper-Librarian