Rapid manufacturing is a process that employs additive fabrication technology (aka rapid prototyping) to produce end-use items. Directly from CAD data, components are manufactured without molding, casting, or machining. The impact of rapid manufacturing is far-reaching, and the opportunities and advantages are extensive. This is why rapid manufacturing is heralded as the next industrial revolution.
Since the earliest days of rapid prototyping, experts have envisioned the application of the technology in the manufacturing process, and the focus of this vision has been on the initial cost and time savings that are realized when tooling is eliminated. Slashing hundreds of thousands of dollars and months from a product launch are significant benefits to manufacturers in all industries. However, the relative impact pales in comparison to the wide-ranging advantages that exist when rapid manufacturing is implemented.
Focusing only on the upfront benefits gained from eliminating tooling, industry has failed to recognize many of the opportunities that rapid manufacturing offers. Some will yield unprecedented efficiencies; some will generate annual savings that far exceed the cost of a tool; and others will facilitate new methodologies that address age-old constraints imposed by conventional practices. Rapid manufacturing will benefit nearly every discipline within a manufacturing organization, and it will change fundamental business processes. When adopted en masse, it truly will be an industrial revolution.
For the production of moderate- to high-volume quantities of metal or plastic parts, molding and casting are the prevalent processes. However, the tooling that is required demands a sizeable investment and a significant commitment to the product and its design.
Rapid manufacturing is an enabling technology, since it eliminates the upfront expense and expedites manufacturing. For example, injection molds for small-to moderate-sized parts will often cost $20,000 to $75,000 and take upward of three months to complete. This investment of time and money is both a barrier to new products, especially for those with low forecasted demand, and a drain on the cash flow and profitability of a company. Obviously, since it eliminates the need for tooling, rapid manufacturing facilitates new product launches and improves the corporate bottom line. For many, this is enough justification to pursue rapid manufacturing, but bigger gains are derived from the freedom to change a product's design.
The rapid cycle times of tooling facilitate inexpensive manufacturing of thousands, often millions, of parts. When amortized over large part quantities, the cost of tooling becomes reasonable and, often times, almost insignificant. However, this presumes that tool will be operated for long periods of time; therefore, the tooling becomes a liability. With the prospect of additional costs and delays, product modifications are undesirable. Investing $5,000 to $20,000 for tooling rework, or $20,000 to $75,000 for replacement, is an unwelcome expense. Also, the losses grow since sales revenues are nonexistent while waiting for tool repair. Wherever possible, the ideal situation is to produce a perfect tool and keep that tool running for the life of the product. With this aim, the release of a work order for a production tool becomes a major commitment.
However, the commitment is not reasonable. Product life cycles are shorter, consumer...