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.
- The United States is ahead in technical innovations, materials, and manufacturing applications of layered manufacturing technology.
- In the area of machine design, the United States is in parity with Europe and Japan.
- In rapid prototyping for medical applications, U.S. efforts are distinctly behind those of Europe and Japan.
- Germany and Japan have implemented major domestic programs to systematically create an infrastructure of strategic RP technologies.
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.
Comparisons Between the United States, Japan, and Europe in Rapid Prototyping
Process, Equipment, and Interfaces
- Germany and Japan stress the importance of incremental process and equipment improvement.
- Powder processing for SFF is crucial for a number of process development efforts in the United States and Europe. No layered powder process developments were observed in Japan.
- Investment casting is common in the United States and has driven metal applications of RP. This was found to be true to a lesser extent in Japan and Germany.
- At the time of the panel's visits, neither Germany nor Japan had looked at using SFF technologies beyond numerical control (NC) processing in terms of "opening up the design space." This objective, as is often discussed in the United States, is to take advantage of the enhanced flexibility in manufacturing and materials systems (e.g., the ability to incorporate functionally gradient materials or embedded components) that is facilitated by the SFF layered manufacturing approach.
- R&D efforts in Germany emphasize rapid prototyping of metal structures.
- Several European companies contribute to world RP software infrastructure by focusing on general-purpose software and standards, opening up entrepreneurial software opportunities.
- RP is recognized as a means to maintain Japan's prominence in a variety of industries.
- Representatives of Japanese companies conveyed their strong belief that for RP to be successful, it must be able to compete with NC machining. The importance of high accuracy for SFF parts was stressed frequently in Japan.
- In Japan, accuracy requirements for mass production metal tooling are too high to be met by the resolution of currently available rapid prototyping systems.
- Penetration of three-dimensional (3D) computer-assisted design (CAD) and solid modeling is not as deep in Germany and Japan as in the United States; hence, the acceptance of SFF technologies has occurred at a somewhat slower pace.
- European and Japanese manufacturers do not plan to enter the U.S. market until intellectual property issues are resolved.
- Government coordination in Japan (especially by the Ministry of International Trade and Industry, MITI) is important for driving developments and applications in RP technology.
- Japan does not see a substantial world market for RP products and services yet, but anticipates a growing industry of strategic importance.
- Japan has a long tradition of incremental process improvement. The Japanese RP development effort is in part focused on this strategy.
- Although the U.S. industry is currently ahead, it consists primarily of small companies that are vulnerable to these country-wide organized technology development efforts.
Government Funding for Design and Manufacturing
- Japan has launched a major design and manufacturing program, CALS (Commerce at Light Speed), with a funding level of $300 million for 1996 and an anticipated increase for 1997 and thereafter. This program will have a significant impact on the infrastructure of rapid prototyping technologies.
- Seven Fraunhofer institutes, with financial support from the German government, are cooperating in a rapid prototyping network to speed up the development, advancement, and dissemination of rapid prototyping technologies to improve the competitiveness of the German manufacturing industry.
- Traditionally, manufacturing education in Japan was led by industry. Major changes are envisioned, with universities playing a key role in the education of the next generation of design and manufacturing engineers.
- The Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI); the Ministry of Education, Science, and Culture (Monbusho); and Japanese universities are initiating new partnerships promoting collaboration, learning, and joint research.
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.
Published: March 1997; WTEC Hyper-Librarian