Date Visited: 11 December 1995
JTEC/WTEC Attendees: F. Prinz (report author), R. Aubin, A. Lightman, M. Wozny, C. Uyehara
Host: Professor Kimura
Professor Kimura is one of the leading researchers and teachers in CAD and manufacturing in Japan. His research area is not directly related to RP, but he is very familiar with the opportunities and issues involved.
A key problem in introducing RP in Japan on a broad basis is related to the current CAD infrastructure there. CAD/CAM systems are not as common in Japan as in the United States. In particular, 3D solid modeling, a prerequisite for RP, is not sufficiently popular. This problem has been recognized by MITI, and a consortium consisting of users, vendors, and R&D organizations, has been established to promote 3D modeling. Funding for this effort is derived from a large government program called CALS (Commerce At Light Speed). The annual budget of this effort is currently ¥30 billion (about $300 million). Financing of this initiative was done through the issue of bonds. RP is one project within the CALS initiative. Professor Kimura's laboratory receives funding from the same initiative to fund research in the area of life cycle engineering.
Prof. Kimura mentioned a noticeable change from past practice in research funding. Traditionally, the Ministry of Education has focused mostly on promoting sciences. In the future, emphasis will be put on stressing to Japanese universities the importance of manufacturing. Also, MITI intends to fund manufacturing projects directly at universities. Japanese government agencies will make efforts to better coordinate funding of manufacturing projects.
All these steps represent a significant change from past tradition where manufacturing education was largely in the hands of Japanese industry. Frustrated by not being able to keep up with changing technologies, Japanese industry has approached universities for help in educating the engineering workforce of the future. The engineering curriculum at Japanese universities has not undergone major changes in about 30 years. In many instances, industrial representatives have felt, outdated concepts are being taught. The subject of manufacturing had lost prestige, but that is changing and manufacturing is "coming back." R&D budgets in manufacturing will continue to go up. As an example, Professor Kimura cited the planned establishment of research centers with limited life times of about five to seven years. Both university and industry will provide human resources for these centers, and the government will back these efforts financially.
Traditionally, entrepreneurship was not encouraged in the Japanese state university system. Entrepreneurial activities were largely performed at private schools that do not quite have the same level of prestige as the state schools. Also, small entrepreneurial companies could not attract the very best engineering graduates, who prefer to work for large and established organizations. Professor Kimura expressed concern about the fact that many new inventions are coming from outside Japan. A possible link to the short entrepreneurial history was inferred.
With regard to new RP research efforts, Professor Kimura mentioned ongoing efforts in high-speed cutting. In particular, he mentioned work at Kubota with very high-speed CNC cutting heads operating at 100,000 rpm. The efficiency is related to cutter diameter and cutter speed. By increasing the speed and reducing the cutter diameter, efficiency can be maintained. Now a single cutter can do the entire mold.
Japanese SLA vendors are sensitive to patents issues, particular to U.S. patents filed in this area. Many supplementary patents for RP methodologies were filed in Japan that are likely to contribute to improved quality of RP technologies. Progress in using RP parts for casting applications was mentioned. Applying RP for judging the aesthetics of components is considered an important direction. The use of RP in medical applications has not really caught on yet in Japan.
Japan has a long tradition of incrementally improving manufacturing methods and processes to ultimate perfection and make them usable on the shop floor. A similar evolution may happen in RP processes.