For manufacturers looking to produce quicker and more cost effectively, rapid prototyping has continued to serve as a beneficial solution. Although rapid prototyping, referring to the family of methods such as laser sintering, 3-D printing, and stereolithography, which quickly convert 3-D computer design files into physical objects, often use polymer materials, they are advancing to encompass a wider range of materials, including metals.
While rapid prototyping still has limitations, manufacturers are increasingly benefiting from its two biggest advantages: cost and time savings. IMT Machining Journal spoke with Tom Pasterik, a designer at additive manufacturing supplier ExOne, about the continuing advances in rapid prototyping, and he is unequivocal with his thoughts:
“It’s the way of the future,” Pasterik says. “Everyone should be taking advantage of it.”
Pasterik and ExOne are leveraging 3-D printing technology that produces parts from metals like stainless steel. He says many customers still tend to look at 3-D printing from a traditional perspective, as a prototyping method.
“A lot of customers are new to 3-D printing … they know how to model and figure out how to take advantage of it,” he says. “But some people don’t push the boundaries, and we try to show them how, because the more people know [about advanced capabilities], the more it benefits us.”
Often, ExOne customers, Pasterik says, find that rapid prototyping saves them time and money in the design and prototyping stages, but few look beyond to its possibilities for actual part production. Pasterik explains that when product design files pass through him, he makes suggestions for part changes with an eye for production.
“A lot of customers come to us for prototypes but don’t think about production. After we prototype, though, they can bolt their parts on and find they work,” Pasterik notes. “We try to show customers how 3-D printing can handle high-volume production runs.”
Pasterik cites a customer, drilling solutions manufacturer Ulterra, which found that a stator that ExOne produced was twice as resistant to abrasive wear as a traditional part. Ulterra pulled its traditionally produced steel stators from its systems and replaced them with stainless-steel-infused bronze stators that were 3-D printed by ExOne. “The original part cost them $425 to make and ExOne does it for $175,” Pasterik says.
The only negative is that with ExOne’s parts outlasting traditional parts, customers need to see him less often, Pasterik jokes.
Mike Adelstein, president and CEO of Potomac Photonics, is similarly enthusiastic about the evolving possibilities of rapid prototyping, as he describes how fast the industry is developing.
“Over half of the work [Potomac Photonics does] is prototyping,” he told IMT Machining Journal. “In the past, rapid prototyping was just a [stereolithography] process and some 3-D printing, but it’s becoming all different types of technology.”
And Adelstein observes customers growing with technology advancements: “We do it with 3-D, lasers, micro-CNC, and new software is making it easier [for customers] to design and email [parts]. Now, things are open source. You used to have expensive software, and medical and biotech were pretty good with it. Now, entrepreneurs are on top of their files, using apps so they can design parts and send them to us cost effectively.”
Further, customers are now much more comfortable with the kinds of technology Potomac Photonics uses to create prototypes.
“Five, 10 years ago, when you mentioned lasers or micro-manufacturing, people would be intimidated,” Adelstein explains. “But the newer generation is more accepting. Lots of high schools are getting these tools in front of kids, so they are much more well-versed in the formats and used to making things quickly.”
Potomac Photonics also works with universities to ensure the next crop of manufacturers is familiar with rapid prototyping technologies. Adelstein and his team work to provide production time to students so they can become familiar with the technology and, when they enter the industry, will think of Potomac Photonics when they need prototyping done. Further, universities can take advantage of rapid prototyping because the cost savings are friendly to their tight research budgets.
Adelstein mentions a project Potomac Photonics worked on for Boston University, 3-D printing precise stencils to allow stem cells to grow in a controlled environment for research purposes. “In the past, making the mold for these products would be prohibitively expensive, but now universities can take advantage of our techniques,” he says. Potomac Photonics has also worked with Johns Hopkins and the Advanced Medical Technologies Laboratory to prototype research equipment.
Where does Adelstein see rapid prototyping going?
“[Rapid prototyping] is still, in some respects, in its infancy,” he said. “There will always be limits to the materials that are available to 3-D, and some people need higher melt temperatures, and there are limits to what these machines can do. But every day, we’re getting someone coming out with a newer product that is closing the gap. There’s always going to be people pushing those limits.”