Advances in Rapid Technologies

Remember the replicator on Star Trek? The one that Captain Picard would verbally prompt to provide him with “tea, Earl Grey, hot?” Thanks to advances in modern rapid technologies, this sci-fi fantasy may some day soon become a reality.

Rapid technologies encompass many different technologies used to quickly create 3D solid parts and prototypes from 3D CAD data. These include: 3D scanning and reverse engineering, rapid prototyping (stereolithography, Selective Laser Sintering, and 3D printing) and rapid tooling, the use of a rapid prototype, either directly or indirectly, as a tooling pattern for creating molds.

Reverse engineering is the process of taking apart an object or product to see how it works in order to duplicate or enhance its design. Physical objects are scanned using 3D scanners and the resulting point cloud of data is used to generate a 3D model of the product. Several new advances are simplifying the connection between the 3D scan data and parametric CAD models, previously the most difficult task.

Design-intent modeling software facilitates this process by extracting the original design intent from a scan of a physical model. This technological advance lead to another important development, the parametric exchange. The parametric exchange completes the connection between point clouds and CAD by providing an intelligent connection with CAD to enable the automatic native reconstruction of geometry.

Prototypes…pronto.

Rapid prototyping (RP) encompasses all the techniques used to quickly fabricate a scale model of a part or assembly using 3D CAD data. Most rapid prototyping techniques use additive manufacturing (AM), which is the process of making parts or a prototype through layers of materials.

Additive manufacturing can be used to build physical models, prototypes, patterns, tooling components, and production parts in plastic, metal, and composite materials.

Though the automotive and aerospace industries were the first industries to pioneer the use of rapid technologies through additive processes, today it is commonly used in the consumer products, medical, and defense industries.

Despite the effects of the global recession, worldwide revenues produced by all additive manufacturing technology products and services in 2010 grew by 24%, according to Wohlers Report 2011, an annual global study on the additive manufacturing and 3D printing industries.

Stereolithography (SLA) is the most commonly used process used to produce 3D solid plastic rapid prototypes from 3D CAD data. SLA builds prototypes with high accuracy, excellent detail and the finest surface finishes. SLA uses a computer-controlled laser to cure a photosensitive resin, layer by layer, to build the part.

Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) is similar to SLA in that it’s an additive process that sinters (fuses) particles of thermoplastic or metal powder together layer-by-layer to build 3D objects or parts using 3D CAD data. Main benefit is that SLS models can serve as functional prototypes.

3D Printing: Potential Game-Changer

The rapid technology that’s garnering the most buzz in the mainstream media is 3D printing, the most inexpensive and fastest means to quickly create parts. With prices plummeting from $400,000 four years ago to as low as $1,000 today, 3D printing is poised to dramatically change manufacturing. Big advantages of 3D printers is that they are generally faster, smaller, less expensive and easier to use than other additive RP techniques.

3D printing technology has become very sophisticated, capable of duplicating 3D CAD models into physical prototypes or products that closely mimic mass-produced parts in both appearance and function. As a result, industries from automotive and aerospace to footwear and jewelry are now putting 3D printers to work to create small-volume parts and end-use products. If they can design it, they can now build it.

Following along with the trend driven by consumers towards mass customization, 3D printing’s time has come, providing companies of all sizes and financial means, as well as individuals, with a way to design and build a product quickly and less expensively. With prices continuing to plummet, 3D printers could potentially change forever the role of traditional factory.

Certainly the market stats are encouraging for this segment of the PR market. According to the Wohlers Report 2011, the market for 3D printers will blossom from $1.3 billion last year to a $5.2 billion industry by 2020.

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