Robert L. Brown

The general needs, goals, and objectives for rapid prototyping are essentially the same in Europe and Japan, although the emphases may be different. Within a country, differences in needs also occur between and within industries. In Japan the tendency is to emphasize accuracy as the predominant consideration, while in Europe there is a movement to develop techniques to produce metal components and tooling. Both regions are interested in building rapid prototype (RP) plastic injection molds to produce a few hundred prototype parts in a commodity-type plastic. In the following discussion, the order in which needs and objectives are addressed does not necessarily represent the order of priority in any one country or industry; indeed, priorities vary between and within industries and companies.


In general, the implementation of rapid prototyping by layer-building techniques has developed slower in Europe and Japan than in the United States. This may be a result of both Europe and Japan enjoying a greater infrastructure of skilled tool makers and model makers than does the United States. Also, U.S. industry tends to embrace new computer-related technologies more quickly.


Compared to the United States, Germany has been slower to adopt rapid prototyping in place of conventional machining techniques because many companies have not seen the need for it. There are still many small tool and machine shops in Germany that can produce a quality product at a reasonable price in a short time. Germany's machine shops are very competitive, with small tool shop owners willing to work nights and weekends to meet delivery dates.


Twenty years ago in Japan it was not uncommon to discuss with a company a new product or product design only to be presented the next day with a prototype of the proposed product incorporating features from the previous day's discussions. With skilled model makers and a culture that values dedication, Japanese companies took well-deserved pride in such feats. These capabilities still exist in Japan, albeit with an aging skilled workforce that is not being replaced by younger skilled practitioners at the rate older workers are leaving the industry. This is evident in both the jewelry and foundry pattern-making businesses, where RP equipment is being introduced for production purposes to fill the shortfall in skilled workers. Other than in these cases and in specific companies discussed in this report, there has not been as great a perceived need for RP techniques in Japan as in the United States.

Still, both European and Japanese companies are using rapid prototyping, which suggests there is a need not being fulfilled by the conventional machine shops. Whether the driver is lower price, faster delivery, or curiosity to evaluate a new technology is not clear. Certainly, the driver is not dimensional accuracy, material properties, or surface finish, as all of these qualities can still be better achieved by conventional machining techniques.

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Published: March 1997; WTEC Hyper-Librarian