Engineers and product designers have more rapid prototyping choices than an aficionado at an art fair. Stereolithography (SLA), selective laser sintering (SLS), fused deposition modeling (FDM) and direct metal laser sintering (DMLS) are but some of the available additive manufacturing (AM) technologies, which cover a range of materials from nylon, polycarbonate, PEEK (polyether ether ketone) and polypropylene to aluminum, cobalt chrome and titanium.
Say you want to develop the latest and greatest garden gnome. For $600 or so you can log in to your Amazon account, order a 3D desktop printer and be creatingyard ornaments from ABS (acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene) in no time. But if you’re planning to build a stainless steel army of those cute little dwarves, you’d better have some serious cash in the bank—a metal-capable machine easily costs $750,000.
If you’re not a do-it-yourselfer, there are plenty of service bureaus and specialty shops willing to build whatever design you have up your sleeve. Simply upload a CAD file to one of the many prototyping Web sites, enter credit card information and your latest brainchild will appear on your doorstep a few days later.
Goodbye Old School
It wasn’t always this way. Before 3D printers were developed, having a prototype made was a straightforward process—design the part, send the drawing out for a couple of quotes and award some lucky machine shop a purchase order. Depending on the part complexity, raw material lead time and the preferred vendor’s backlog, your shiny new prototype might arrive in a month or two.
A slow avalanche of change began in the mid-1980s when 3D Systems delivered the first SLA systems. The lure of shorter product development cycles was intriguing, but those early machines cost upwards of $350,000 and were able to manufacture parts from but a few flavors of photopolymer, thus limiting their functionality to foundry patterns and visualization for high-end product development.
As a result, SLA had little impact on machine shops, and traditional prototyping continued unabated for a few years more. Enter FDM, an AM technology that became increasingly prevalent during the early 1990s, one that offered a broader range of materials than SLA and a price tag within the reach of many capital equipment budgets. Still, machine shops had little cause to worry. After all, additive manufacturing was limited to plastic, and everyone knew that prototyping of functional metal parts would always require machining centers, lathes and EDM. Think again.
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