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SME Speaks: Rapid Prototyping: A True Tool for Change

By Todd Grimm
Founder and President
T.A. Grimm & Associates, Inc.
Edgewood, KY


It wasn't so long ago, actually back in 1987, that an industry was born. That year, 3D Systems unveiled the world's very first rapid prototyping device. This technology ushered in an age of direct, digital technologies for the rapid production of models, prototypes, and patterns. Since its introduction, rapid prototyping has changed design, engineering, and manufacturing processes within the consumer products, aerospace, medical devices, and automotive industries. There is no question in my mind that rapid prototyping is amazing, powerful, and revolutionary.

Since the delivery of the first rapid prototyping system, the applications and breadth of uses have grown beyond belief. Rapid prototyping users have been on a sharp increase due to a new class of machines available for less than $30,000. Virtually every industry that designs and manufactures mechanical components has used rapid prototyping. The technology is so pervasive that most people will use at least one product a day to which rapid prototyping has been applied.

What exactly is rapid prototyping? The most universal definition is "a collection of technologies that are driven by CAD data to produce physical models and parts through an additive process." Simply put, rapid prototyping is a digital tool that grows parts on a layer-by-layer basis without machining, molding, or casting. Rapid prototyping can reproduce (quickly and accurately) designs that are impractical or impossible to create by any other method.

Rapid prototyping, according to the "Wohlers Report," is nearly a billion-dollar-a-year industry with more than 30 system vendors. Wohlers Associates, Inc. also reports that in 2002, 22.4% of rapid prototype models were used for functional models, 19.2% as patterns for prototype tooling, 15.3% for visual aids for engineering, and 15% for fit/assembly. Another 28% of rapid prototype models were utilized for patterns for cast metal, tooling components, and direct manufacturing--to name just a few. You also might find it very interesting and surprising that rapid prototyping has already been used to generate time and cost savings in fighter aircraft and the Space Shuttle.

Innovation is another reality of rapid prototyping. The reproduction of ancient statues, creation of art, and the modeling of anatomical structures are a few of the innovative applications. For instance, rapid prototyping was used in 2001 to help surgeons separate two Egyptian twins who were born conjoined at the head. Through rapid prototyping, models were created to help surgeons visualize the Ibrahim twins' shared anatomy, and plan for their separation surgery in 2003. Happily, the twins were successfully separated late last year after more than a year of planning and a 34-hour-long operation.

On the racing scene, rapid prototyping develops metal and plastic components for NASCAR and Formula 1 cars. In an environment where weight reduction is critical, race teams have found that rapid prototyping allows them to produce parts that improve performance.

So what will the future of rapid prototyping look like? As with many new technologies, research and development in this area is at a significant level. New methods, new applications, and new materials are continuously being tested in labs around the world. What this means to the users of rapid prototyping is that the future is likely to reveal not only many incremental advances, but also a handful of technologies that will change the process and the business of design and manufacturing. Over the next five, ten, or twenty years, rapid prototyping will have a broader application, wider acceptance, and a greater impact on many industries.

Although it may appear contradictory, at the same time that R&D increases, the rapid prototyping industry will also move toward standardization. As we progress into the future, consumers will set the tone by selecting standards based on what is most beneficial and desirable for their needs. In the coming years, standards for the process and deliverables will ensue, yielding clear classifications of rapid prototyping technologies.

Rapid prototyping's impact reaches far and wide. There is diversity in the application of rapid prototyping in terms of the disciplines that use it, the processes that benefit from it, the industries that employ it, and the products that are better because of it. The common element of all of its applications is that rapid prototyping is a tool that speeds up processes, improves product quality, lowers costs, and sparks innovation. The possibilities for rapid prototyping are endless, and I firmly believe that this technology can help designers, engineers, and executive management alike make better business decisions.

If you are interested in rapid prototyping and want to learn more about it, you should attend the Rapid Prototyping & Manufacturing 2004 Conference & Exposition. The event will be held in Dearborn, MI, May 10 - 13. Hear from Todd Grimm as he discusses the relative strengths and weaknesses of different rapid prototyping methods, and be the first to purchase his new book, "User's Guide to Rapid Prototyping." Grimm will be available to sign books on Tuesday, May 11, at a special networking reception. If you are not already a member of SME and you join at the conference, you will receive the book for free. What's more, you can hear from Terry Wohlers of Wohlers Associates, Inc. regarding the most significant trends in rapid prototyping during his "State of the Industry Executive Summary." For information and registration, visit or call (800) 733-4763.                


Rapid Prototyping "Speeds" to Michigan

After a year of planning, the Rapid Prototyping & Manufacturing (RP&M) 2004 Conference & Exposition will bring top professionals, researchers, and the best thinkers in the global rapid prototyping community to Dearborn, MI May 10 - 13. This is North America's largest annual rapid manufacturing event, and will offer users and providers of design, prototyping, tooling, and direct manufacturing many opportunities for face-to-face interaction.       

The 2004 conference will be nothing short of spectacular, due to the dedication of SME's Rapid Technologies & Additive Manufacturing technical community. On May 10, attendees will have the opportunity to see rapid prototyping technology in action through tours of Roush Industries, General Pattern, and the DaimlerChrysler Tech Center. Don't be surprised if you see NASCAR racing cars zooming to the conference. These highly specialized cars require custom parts produced in low quantities, making rapid technologies a necessary component to their operations and performance. The equipment and software that support the development of these specialized parts will be on display at the RP&M Exposition, which opens at 11:30 am on May 11.

This year's keynote speaker will be John Fernandez, director, Dodge Motorsports Operations. Fernandez's May 11 presentation, "Revving Up Motorsports with RP&M," will highlight his experiences using rapid technologies at Dodge Motorsports for faster, stronger, and better-built racing cars and parts.

Terry Wohlers will also present his annual report on the State of the Industry. An Industry Panel Discussion will expand on the topics introduced in this address, focusing on the issues impacting the industry today, as well as future implications.

This conference and exposition is a must-attend for design, prototyping, tooling and manufacturing professionals who are involved in management, engineering, purchasing, product development and production. For more information or to register, visit or call (800) 733-4763 (in the US) or (313) 271-1500, Ext. 4500.                      



SME's Annual Meeting Is Coming 

Make plans to join SME members and other manufacturing practitioners at the 2004 SME Annual Meeting, to be held at the Hyatt Regency Cincinnati, June 9 - 13. This will be an action-packed event, chock-full of leadership, recognition, and networking activities. It's also the site of a Management Forum on global competitiveness that will focus on how manufacturers can become more globally competitive through the principles of lean manufacturing and continuous improvement. Additionally, a Professional Development Conference will help you overcome the inevitable challenges in your manufacturing career by expanding and updating your professional skills.

Highlights include:

  • SME Management Forum--"Making It In America: Rising Up To The Global Manufacturing Challenge," including a plant tour of the Toyota Motor Manufacturing Plant in Georgetown, KY.
  • Opening Reception--riverboat cruise.
  • Optional Plant Tours (details to be announced).
  • Professional Development Conference --"Developing the Competitive Edge for the Manufacturing Professional."
  • Student and Youth Program Recognition.
  • SME Leadership Meetings.
  • Keynote Breakfasts and Luncheons.
  • International Honor Awards Banquet.
  • SME Annual Business Meeting.
  • Companion Programs/Tours.

Complete event details and registration will be available soon at, or you can call (800) 733-4763 (US) or (313) 271-1500, Ext. 4500.


This article was first published in the April 2004 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine. 

Published Date : 4/1/2004

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