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Rapid Prototyping

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About Rapid Prototyping

July 2001

The meaning of the term rapid prototyping varies by industry, but this Technology Map uses it to mean the convergence of computer-aided design software with advances in novel optical and heat-based fabrication techniques, which make possible the direct conversion of an image on a screen into a solid object. Systems are already in use to make models and prototypes that greatly reduce the time and cost necessary to bring new products to market. Eventually, developments in this field may make possible the design, test, modification, and manufacture of a product from common electronic data. Furthermore, the ability to make many successive three-dimensional solid models of a product easily will greatly enhance the ability of designers to optimize the appeal and quality of their products.

Dominated by stereolithography, more than 7000 rapid-prototyping machines have come into use in the past 14 years, and the number continues to grow rapidly. Vendors of rapid-prototyping systems and suppliers of materials see large market opportunities for themselves, but savings in the design of almost any type of product will mean a far greater economic impact on virtually all industries, including transportation, engineering and construction, consumer electronics, office machines, household appliances, furniture, and even clothing. Service bureaus that offer users the opportunity to try out new technologies and test their computer-aided designs have appeared in significant numbers—especially around industrial manufacturing regions, where some 80% of all prototyping currently takes place. By the end of 2001, as many as 9000 of these machines could be in use worldwide.

As time to market and quality of design increase in importance in manufacturing, the need for ever higher rates of rapid prototyping will be vital for increasing global competition. Those companies able to master such design skills at the early stages of product development will likely see improvements in the manufacturability of their products, their cost of manufacturing, the appropriateness of their products for their intended use, and the feeling of quality their customers experience once they have used the product. Recently, RP has been branching out into the emerging areas of rapid tooling and rapid manufacturing, thanks to developments in new processes and materials. This Technology Map places rapid-prototyping technologies within the context of their broadest implications for managers in virtually all manufacturing industries.