By now, most people connected with the design, development and manufacture of products moulded from plastics and metals will have become familiar with the term ‘rapid prototyping’ (RP). This mini revolution only became possible once components were drawn using a CAD (computer aided design) programmes, as opposed to the more traditional drawing methods. But although apparently crystal clear, CAD printouts give the impression that components, fits and clearances are accurate in every respect. It continues to be desirable and is often essential, to manufacture accurate prototypes before a new product is tooled.
Manufacturing Models from CAD Drawings
By using CAD data it has become possible to make resin replicas using a variety of magical manufacturing rapid prototyping routes alternatively, electronic information can be used either to machine 3D prototypes or to cut metal cores and cavities, so that thermoplastic or metal components can be moulded or cast from the resultant temporary, or even production, tooling.
However, with today’s CAD technology, most manufacturers anticipate that eventually some appropriate tooling will need to be commissioned in order to produce production components, irrespective of whether the eventual requirements are for long or short runs.
Inquisitive visitors to the TCT conference will have realised that the rapid prototyping scene may soon be set to change and that ‘rapid manufacturing’ (RM), rather than ‘rapid prototyping’ may soon become the trend. Those delegates who attended the lectures concerning RM soon realised that the idea of rapid manufacturing has moved well beyond being just a buzz word.
What is Rapid Manufacturing and How Far Away Is It?
It is now perceived that rapid manufacturing can best be described as a possible alternative manufacturing route for modestly-sized components, in which the annual production requirement may be counted in tens and hundreds rather than in thousands. The expected revolution will probably take place as the existing rapid prototyping systems become more accurate, refined and sophisticated. Further developments should swiftly follow, once the manufacturers of prototyping resins realises that as the demands of rapid manufacturing become apparent, the consumption of appropriate resins will be measured in tonnes rather than in kilograms. This, in turn, will probably persuade those concerned to redouble their efforts to improve the properties of their prototyping materials.
Resins for Rapid Manufacturing
Assuming this is so, one can only wonder whether the resin manufacturers will choose to develop materials that continue to mimic established polymers, or alternatively take the initiative and formulate new materials that reflect the specific requirements of the product designer. One would hope resin manufacturers choose the latter path, since the choice of most of today’s plastics generally result in a compromise of properties. With the advent of rapid manufacturing, new opportunities to produce resins to suit the specific needs of the end product could eventually become a reality. Already this trend can be seen among the compounders of thermoplastics who are moving towards purpose made polymers. Albis UK Ltd is one such company who has developed a range of blends and thermoplastic alloys under the trade name of Alcorn.
Where is Rapid Manufacturing Now?
Two of the speakers at Manchester who excited the audiences with their descriptions of RM were Richard Hague of Loughborough University and Ian Holliday of MG Rover. Listening to these two presenters and others, the opinion could be formed that the immediate applications for RM can be found where there are unrestrained financial budgets and where speed of manufacture and prototyping is of paramount importance. Two such industries that have already experienced this revolution are the manufacture of space vehicles and Formula 1 racing cars, with such applications giving added meaning to the word rapid!
It is anticipated that soon there will be more down to earth applications and, as with any revolution, one should expect major changes in philosophy as well as activity.
How Will Rapid Manufacturing Fit In?
As a consequence one should consider whether rapid manufacturing will be an extension of the activities of the design and development office rather than an expansion of the traditional responsibility of the plastics moulding shop or its metal equivalent.
The Future For Rapid Manufacturing
Once suitably refined CAD data, resins and rapid prototyping machinery become available, specialist end users will undoubtedly start to realise that with rapid manufacturing, new marketing opportunities will arise. For instance, one imagines that some motor vehicles may be customised for discerning customers, with cockpit trim and accessories tailor made to suit. If that is so, one should expect to see the manufacture of items such as medical equipment, which at the moment is often made in small quantities, becoming more efficient to manufacture using rapid maufacturing technology and, as a result more widely available owing to the dramatic reduction in mould and origination charges.
Advantages of Rapid Manufacturing Techniques
Another distinct advantage of rapid manufacturing, which should soon become apparent, concerns those products that carry the warning ‘we reserve the right to constantly update our product’. This will at last become more meaningful. No longer will ongoing modifications and the improvement of products be influenced by the often prohibitive cost of tooling modifications. Major and minor modifications alike could be a ‘lights out’ operation and, once the CAD data is adjusted, be just the click of a mouse away. Likewise, spare parts will not be items to stock but rather components built on demand.
Flexibility of Rapid Manufacturing Processes
One can then only anticipate that, once rapid manufacturing equipment or its equivalent becomes more developed and universally available, for an appropriate fee, the latest component design data could be downloaded and the replacement or updated components manufactured in house.
No doubt readers will wish to gaze into their own particular crystal ball, and there is little doubt that some of the hundreds of design students studying in UK universities or entering this years’ Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining - Horners Students Plastics Design Competition will be using RM as a matter of routine within the span of their future careers.