GOVERNMENT SUPPORT

It is difficult to construct a simple picture of how funds flow in Europe from government agencies to industry and academia to further the development of RP. This is because of the high number of overlapping and interwoven local government, federal government, and European Community agencies' programs that provide support. For example, there is support for RP-related programs from the Commission of the European Communities through BRITE/EuRAM, RACE, ESPRIT, COMPLAN, and EARP. Some programs like EARP (European Action on Rapid Prototyping), which is under BRITE/EuRAM (Basic Research of Industrial Technologies for Europe/European Research on Advanced Materials), have very limited funds for distribution. "BRITE funds basic research while EuRAM focuses on European research on advanced materials. In the 1993-94 period, BRITE/EuRAM supported most of the European RP projects. ESPRIT is involved more on the computing side. The EUREKA program is supported jointly by the EC and national governments, whereas BRITE and ESPRIT are funded exclusively by the EC."1 In addition, there are federal and state government programs. When seven Fraunhofer institutes initiated their alliance to coordinate their RP programs (the JTEC/WTEC team visited four of these. See Sites 1996, 18-33), the German government gave the alliance DM 5 million (~$3.5 million) over two years to fund start up. In other RP efforts, approximately 50% of the operating funds to support the Bayerisches Laserzentrum (Bavarian Laser Center) come from local state government, and the innovative service bureau Fockele and Schwarze received startup funding through a Westphalia government program that further backed its loans through a local bank (Sites, 1996, 1-3, 14-17).

In Japan, MITI's position appears to be that RP is not a serious commercial process because of the poor surface finish, material properties, and accuracy of its products. (A number of Japanese companies, on the other hand, do consider RP to be a serious commercial process.) The Ministry is not yet committed to investing substantial resources to support RP. Government officials estimated at the time of the JTEC/WTEC visit that it would be at least eight years before RP becomes a serious commercial technology and before Japanese RP equipment companies will compete in sales on a world scale. Currently, RP represents less than 1% of the NC (numerical control) machine tool market and therefore enjoys only minor support from MITI compared to its past support of Japan's machine tool industry, which has 48% of the world machine tool market. However, MITI does fund a ¥800 million 4-year RP program that is administered through the government laboratory, Center for Plastic Materials, which distributes ¥200 million per year. The funds are available to industry to support research and development activities in four areas: (1) resins, (2) hardware, (3) software, and (4) applications. Japan Synthetic Rubber Company, which owns the stereolithography equipment manufacturer D-MEC, is the only company obtaining funds from MITI for materials development under this program. INCS, Inc., has a ¥30 million project to develop RP tooling and another ¥800,000 to develop medical models.

Japan's Ministry of Education, Science, and Culture is moving from a position of promoting basic science in universities to stressing the importance of manufacturing. In another departure from general past practices, MITI intends to fund manufacturing projects directly at universities. As these changes only appear to be recent, panelists had little or no discussion in Japan about RP training programs for industry. In general, prefectural governments sponsor local programs for industry and education, which may be another source of funds to support development activities.

In summary, it is apparent that European industry, universities, and research institutes are identifying and addressing practical needs in RP and are moving forward with determination to establish well-thought-out development programs that will produce a solid foundation of basic knowledge on which to build further advancements in RP. In Japan, the links between industry, academia, and research institutes do not seem to be quite as strong as in Europe. It is clear to this panel that the Japanese have a long-term plan to be major, if not dominant, competitors on a global scale in RP. They have demonstrated in other fields that they can produce a superior product by identifying practical needs and quietly addressing all details to produce a complete solution.


1 This explanation was contributed by Terry T. Wohlers.
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Published: March 1997; WTEC Hyper-Librarian