Developments in rapid prototyping technologies are moving quickly with several different processes now commercially available.
The technology which speedily transforms three-dimensional computer-aided design models into physical models began in 1988 with stereo-lithography. Now tooling can be manufactured without using secondary processes for more functional prototypes. And by 2010 it should be possible to manufacture metal components directly, removing the need for tooling.
The technology has tremendous strategic potential, with the possibility of eliminating production tooling and providing effective alternatives to traditional machining processes, such as milling.
Stereolithography and other rapid prototyping processes are beginning to be used in industry to reduce the time and cost involved in creating prototype components and tooling. Reported time savings range from 60-80%, depending on the complexities of the parts.
Over the past eight years, annual world-wide sales have grown to more than 700 units a year. Annual unit sales are predicted to grow even more significantly over the coming years as more manufacturing companies begin to understand what the technology can offer.
Applications of these new technologies have found favour in large and small firms. Many small companies, and some of the larger ones, gain access to the technology through the use of rapid prototyping bureaux, which make up a large share of the market for new rapid prototyping machines.
New information and manufacturing technologies are often perceived as a means of improving current practices, for example, by saving time or reducing costs. Rapid prototyping technologies are no exception to this rule.
However, over the past 15 years, many new technologies have often provided the opportunity to radically modify accepted business practices, or they have offered the potential to enable entirely new approaches. The Internet and the World Wide Web are recent examples of this phenomenon.
Commonly, innovative aspects of new technology have not been fully exploited, or they have been slowly understood by firms. Rapid prototyping processes are examples of new manufacturing technologies that give industry the potential to break with accepted practices, and an opportunity for firms to innovate and gain a competitive advantage over their rivals.
Several business objectives can be significantly improved using the technologies. These include time to market for new products; product quality; customer focus; manufacturing flexibility; new product development and manufacturing costs; and manufacturing lead times.
But the key to applying these technologies for competitive advantage lies in innovative use. This involves using the technologies not only to deliver improvements, but also to enable new things which previously might have been impossible or uneconomic.
While the pursuit of time and cost reductions are clearly necessary business objectives, it is evident that by using rapid prototyping in more innovative ways, firms can derive more significant benefits.
Included in these innovative applications are: the development of new analysis and testing procedures; manufacture of production tooling; improving communications across product divisions; and supporting customised manufacturing.
Rapid prototyping technologies must be viewed as enablers of new business strategies. Firms should therefore be looking at fundamental issues and addressing how they can apply the technologies to support expansion into new markets, to increase market share, to differentiate from competitors, to modify the basis of competition, and to develop more innovative products.
These innovative applications are important to the successful and cost-effective use of the technologies. But, given the high capital costs of some rapid prototyping machines, and the hidden costs such as maintenance agreements, organisational changes, CAD system upgrades, etc, it may be the case that it will be seen as financially viable only when these wider potential benefits are taken into account.
Technology can no longer be viewed just as a means of implementing strategies. All new strategies need to be formulated while taking into account the potential of new technologies. This is a two-way relationship, and not, as we may have often viewed it before, a one-way street.
Any company contemplating investing in these new technologies should undertake strategic, technical and organisational assessment so that they better understand the issues, the actual costs and the full range of potential benefits. The strategic and supply chain management issues surrounding the use of rapid prototyping bureaux also need to be explored.
The process used to evaluate and implement the technologies needs to be responsive to the continuing technological change in this field. The technologies and organisational structures selected and implemented must be easily reconfigured to accommodate new developments.
Companies which are already using these technologies would benefit from reassessing the strategic, organisational and supply chain management issues of their current applications.
The strategic, organisational, cost/benefit and implementation issues surrounding rapid prototyping are explored in detail in a management report to be published this month. For further details contact Paul Kidd; tel: 01625 619313; fax: 01625 619060.