Richard F. Aubin
In the United States today, there is a greater variety of rapid prototyping tooling applications than in most other countries. U.S. engineers, scientists, technicians, and business people seem to brainstorm this relatively new technology in aggressive ways to try to find an appropriate fit for various applications. In so doing, they have found novel and creative applications of rapid prototyping (RP) to the manufacture of parts and tools.
The JTEC/WTEC panel visited a number of European and Japanese academic and commercial organizations performing excellent and interesting work in the application of RP to tooling. Their programs cover a variety of applications of RP technologies and the manufacture of various tools. This chapter reviews the applications that the JTEC/WTEC panel observed in Europe and Japan. While the panel found many of its hosts to be open and casual, it should be acknowledged that organizations' natural propensity to protect their intellectual property is especially visible in rapid prototyping application development. Although the rapid prototyping equipment is in the public domain, how this technology is applied to attain competitive advantage remains sensitive. Accordingly, the following information is a reflection of what was considered nonproprietary by the panel's hosts. It is to be expected that there are a lot more proprietary tooling application efforts underway than were shared with the panel.
There are a number of special considerations when applying rapid prototyping to tooling. In some cases, parts or tools must be plated with a thin coat of metal to facilitate their use in a harsh environment. In other cases, it is necessary to fabricate holding fixtures for parts to be inspected in coordinate measuring machines (CMM), or to hold parts that will be machined via electronic discharge machining (EDM). Even though it is possible to render a fixture that can hold a complex delicate part for some touch-probing inspection directly from a computer model, or to EDM a part with little to no tool pressure on the part, there is a certain amount of cultural change that is necessary before manufacturers or their clients are ready to take this step. Manufacturers need to be convinced that if there is not a lot of pressure on the tool, and it is just going to be holding something statically positioned, a plastic tooling fixture will suffice in place of a metal fixture. It is in willingness to embrace this kind of cultural change that the panel feels the United States is, in general, further ahead than the European countries and Japan. However, there is a considerable amount of innovative RP tooling work underway in France, Germany, and Japan.