In 1996, Ian Gibson, co-editor of the Rapid Prototyping Journal, conducted an on-line conference that brought people together from all over the world to discuss fabber technologies and applications. The following paper was submitted to the cyber conference by Brock Hinzmann of SRI International.
Rapid Prototyping (RP) is a term that is in use in the semiconductor integrated circuit industry, the computer software industry, the printed circuit board industry, and so forth. Here, it means the direct conversion of a computer-aided design (CAD) model into a solid, physical object. Other names for RP technology include desktop manufacturing, 3-D printing, solid freeform fabrication, automated fabrication, holoforming, and so forth. In most cases, RP results in a preproduction form or model, upon which production items can be based.
Santa Claus Machine
Such terms for RP as desktop manufacturing and automated fabrication imply the long-term goal of people to have a machine that sits by their side and produces a physical manifestation of any object they can dream up on their workstations, much as printers produce two-dimensional objects today. One person has called RP machines Santa Claus machines; Santa Claus being a mythological person, who comes to the home, bringing presents that good people have wished for (or lumps of coal to people that are not so good; some RP users have found lumps of nondescript solidified photopolymer in the bottoms of their stereolithography vats).
In his presentations on the future of RP technology, Marshall Burns, Ennex Fabrication Technologies (Los Angeles, California) has variously refered to the use of such machines in the home as The Household Fabricator or, more recently, The Personal Factory. The purpose of this on-line paper is to explore some of the business opportunities that might arise from the notion of having a personal factory (PF; parallel to the term personal computer, or PC) in the home and the technological developments that might make it feasible.
State of the Art
RP machines, which are available currently in such forms as stereolithography, selective laser sintering, laminated object manufacturing, fused deposition modeling, solid ground curing, and so forth, have evolved from expensive (US$250,000 to $500,000) machines, which produced fragile appearance or concept models, to a wide family of machines with various capabilities. Some of todays RP machines act as relatively less expensive ($50,000) desktop computer peripherals. Leading producers, such as 3D Systems, DTM, Helisys, Stratasys, and Cubital, have also pushed the accuracy of the objects produced, relative to the CAD models, and have increased the toughness and versatility of the materials in use in the high-end machines. Competition has sprung up in Japan from CMET, D-MEC, and many others in Japan, as well as a couple of competitors in Europe, notably EOS (Germany), all of whom are also attempting to improve the technology and the materials. Research at commercial companies, universities, and research institutes will lead to direct production of ceramic and metal parts from RP machines. No longer just for appearance, RP parts are already in use as form and fit prototypes, casting and tooling patterns, and sometimes fully functional prototypes for mechanical testing, able to withstand physical punishment.
According to Terry Wohlers, Wohlers Associates, a Ft. Collins, Colorado, consultant specializing in the RP industry, more than 1200 RP machines are installed worldwide. Although a seemingly small number, the rate of installation growth is faster than the early introduction of such industrial equipment as materials-working lasers and water-jet cutting machines. Some large aerospace and automotive companies own more than 10 or 15 RP machines apiece, from different vendors, making use of the different advantages of different machines. However, a much larger number and variety of companies and industries are served by service bureaus, which are job shops that not only make short runs of physical parts on demand from clients that cannot justify the cost or do not want the added complication of owning their own machine, but also provide other services, such as fixing CAD files. At least 200 service bureaus exist worldwide, which are able to accept orders electronically from clients anywhere else in the world and deliver the finished parts, usually within three to ten days, by courier services. Some service bureaus provide casting and molding services. Some RP equipment vendors and casting and molding companies also provide protoyping services.
As a result of all the expanding commercial competition and research activities, the questions that one begins to ask are:
- How much cheaper will RP/desktop manufacturing machines become and when?
- How much more versatile will RP materials and parts become?
- Will such materials and parts be usable by the average consumer?
- Who will want access to and the use of such technology for personal production of products?
- What other technologies and infrastructure need to evolve, in order for the average consumer to have direct access to the technology?
Several potential scenarios are suggested by the questions above. The conventional view is that two or more segments within the current RP industry will evolve, each segment requiring different types of machines, but assumes that RP machines will remain in the hands of original equipment manuacturers (OEMs) and their direct suppliers of parts and services. Another scenario suggests that one of the new segments that will evolve is a retail segment, in which RP machines are capable of producing useful products that consumers are willing to pay to have made from CAD files from various sources. A third scenario is that RP-type machines will become inexpensive and simple enough for installation and use in the home. A brief description of each scenario follows and a schematic figure of the third scenario is included with that description.
The current trends in RP machines point to a bifurcation in the market. Companies such as 3D Systems continue to press issues of accuracy in duplicating CAD models in the physical output from its machines. The larger of such machines, such as 3Ds SLA 500, continue to cost in the range of $500,000, although the performance has improved vastly over the early machines. New epoxy materials (produced for 3D Systems by Ciba Geigy) have much greater strength than early acrylic materials. Other new material options can provide much greater toughness over the original acrylics or the epoxies. DTM offers nylon, acrylonitrile butadeine styrene (ABS), and composite materials (supplied by BF Goodrich). Helisys offers its standard paper-based, woodlike materials, which are inexpensive and available widely, and, more recently, polymeric composites. Stratasys offers virtually any thermoplastic material (including some developed in partnership with 3M). Such polymeric materials suppliers as DuPont, AlliedSignal, Japan Synthetic Rubber, and others also offer variations that can be soft, almost like rubber, or can be filled with additives that give other desirable properties.
Ceramic materials are already available from Soligens RP machine (the technology for which was developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) for casting applications. Several organizations in the United States are working on ceramics for higher-strength applications, including DTM, Helisys, Rutgers University, and SRI International, among others. Sintering of polymer-coated metal particles and direct sintering of metal and ceramic materials are under research by such organizations as DTM, EOS, the Los Alamos National Laboratory (U.S.), and affiliated universities.
The conventional view assumes that the leading edge of the technology will continue to result in expensive machines, affordable mainly only to large corporations and high-volume service bureaus. Higher accuracy and the use of production materials will turn rapid prototyping machines into automated production equipment for low-volume, flexible manufacturing.
However, the conventional view also assumes that a low-end market will fall out from existing technology, making use of less expensive, less accurate machines to produce form and concept models in desktop machines for the design and engineering office environment. Precursors to such machines are currently available for $50,000 to $100,000 from such companies as Sanders, Kira, Denken Engineering, BPM, and, most recently, 3D Systems. This scenario also assumes that designers will not abandon or greatly reduce their use of physical prototypes, in favor of virtual, CAD prototypes.
In an expansion upon the conventional scenario, it is possible that an indirect consumer market may evolve for the production of consumer items on RP machines that are installed in retail outlets. Just as consumers are able to design 2-D greeting cards on a Hallmark vending machine today, various kinds of retail stores might become consumer RP service bureaus in the future. Consumers might go to such outlets with their own 3-D CAD files on a disk, or they might choose among items on a library listing stored on the retail outlets computer. Some outlets might specialize in certain product areas, such as toys, kitchen appliances, or automotive products. Rather than storing CAD files at the retail sites, the outlets might purchase licensing agreements with OEMs to acquire CAD files, as needed, over an electronic network (such as the Internet). Another piece of equipment that may be demanded is a laser scanner or other form of 3-D scanning, for duplication, replacement copy, or reverse engineering or an existing physical item that a consumer might bring into the retail outlet.
Specific applications of a consumer retail service bureau, where a replication, duplication, or 3-D facsimile machine and the possibly requisite digitizer might be located, might include:
Novelty items. Gifts, decorative items, personal momentos, or limited edition collectors items can be created on a disk at home or selected from a retail computerized inventory and slightly modified, personalized, and fabricated at the store. Artists using mathematical formulas to create complex shapes, which they print out in 3-D physical models. Museum curators are making detailed plastic models of rare artifacts for loan to researchers at other museums and universities. French consumers have been reported using laser scanners to create 3-D CAD files of their own heads, in order to create plastic busts of themselves. Models of childrens school art projects or favorite animal pets, for sending to friends and relatives, are possible. It has been suggested that consumers can make personalized facial masks for seasonal celebrations. Personalized Christmas and other seasonal ornaments are another possibility.
Toys and games. As with novelty items, any original or personalized item is possible. Also, replacement or duplication of lost, broken, or needed additional game pieces are possible. Entrepreneurial developers of new toys and games can make test items at relatively low cost.
Household items. Many household items, kitchen utentils, tools, and specialty gadgets might be easier to use and ergonomic if the sizes, grips, and other fittings could be personalized. The U.S. Navy has spent $55 million to develop a machine to break up and melt plastic dinnerware into storable pucks; a possible target for reforming the plastic into new items. Custom designs for coverings and housings might also be attractive to consumers. As mentioned previously, lost or broken items can be replaced.
Appliance repair or refitting. Broken or worn out parts, especially for products made in a foreign country or by companies that have gone out of business. Broken knobs, buttons, handles, and so forth can be replaced. Those same knobs, buttons, and handles can be customized, especially for people with some special need, such as unusually large or small sizes or physical limitations due to age (young or old) or handicap, where an alternative mechanism is easier to use than the OEM version.
Automotive repair. Anyone who has waited for days in the desert for want of that certain correct rubber hose understands this application. Downloading CAD files from the OEM via the Internet to the remote service station is a possible alternative. The repair might only need to be sufficient to allow the car to travel to the nearest location that provides proper service.
Personal Factory Scenario
A third scenario expands still further on the two scenarios discussed previously. It assumes that the cost, ease of use, and the supporting infrastructures of todays RP machines will evolve to the point that the average consumer will want, be able to afford, and be able to use a machine for home use that will be a personal factory, able to make any 3-D physical structure. Most, if not all of the applications cited under the retail scenario apply to the personal factory scenario as well. The main differences are that the fabrication will be done in the home, rather than in a retail outlet, and that materials will, therefore, need to be delivered to the home and in smaller volumes than if delivered to the retail outlet.
It can also be expected that some new high-volume applications may also be found for the PF in the home, which may have additional implications for the technology and infrastructure that will be in demand. A true factory is able to produce fully functional products, not just structural components. Even the PF envisioned in this paper will not be able to produce ICs, batteries, displays, and so forth. If the PF is to find use in production of fully functional devices, those other components will also need to be made available and distributed to the consumer in some way, either directly or through an intermediary.
It is possible that electronic circuits and other functional components might also be printed into RP structural parts by relatively inexpensive means in the future. However, for the puposes of scenario simplicity, the personal factory infrastructure and technology that follows in the next section of this paper assumes that functional components will be accounted for in the consumers design, purchased from a separate vendor, and fitted into the structural component. Industrial manufacturers flirted with automated printed circuit board RP machines in the past, but seemed to prefer making their own prototypes. It is not clear if such machines will be more or less desireable in the personal factory scenario or even the commercial retail scenario. Application specific integrated circuits are already increasingly designed by fabless firms and fabricated by fab-only, designless firms, a trend that, for reasons of cost and efficiency, is likely to continue. On the other hand, software is by definition much easier to prototype and, if the personal factory scenario becomes reality, the interplay between software and hardware designed and produced in the home will create interesting implications for conventional manufacturers.
Personal Factory Infrastructure and Technology
Before any new technology can reach its full economic potential, a number of other synergistic technologies, infrastructures, and market factors must also develop. In the cases of many technologies, the convergence of all of the underlying factors can take at least twenty, thirty, or even forty years. Considering it is just 15 years since the first patents on RP, and just nine years since 3D Systems introduced the first commercial machine, the appearance of the PF cannot be expected soon. Nonetheless, some of the underlying factors are also developing in ways that make the PF seem possible.
Wanting to have a personal factory in the home is not an insignificant part of the consumer acceptance of the technology. SRI Internationals original Values and Lifestyles (VALS(tm)) psychographic market segmentation system analyzes consumer product purchase decisions based on how those products fit into the consumers lives. VALS psychographic types that might be attracted to a personal factory first are consumers that feel they must have the latest technology. Consumers that SRI calls Actualizers are often the first to see the advantage of a technology, are innovative, and have the income to purchase new technology. They often conduct business from their homes and will seek competitive advantage from technology. Although Actualizers have enough income to buy what they want, they often have high-end activities, such as making their own home improvements or having hobbies and crafts in the home for their own pleasure.
People that are likely to form their own business to pursue intellectual properties, concepts, ideas, patents, and so forth are less likely to want rapid prototyping machines or the personal factory for making products for their own consumption, but rather to test the physical reality of their ideas. They may want models to give them support for patent applications. They may want to test CAD models for product ideas they want to sell, either to manufacturers or to other consumers, over the Internet. They may want to use the machine as a 3-D facsimile machine, in order to send and receive models to and from collaborators.
Two other VALS types may seem to be easy targets for the PF, but are not the likely first consumers. After Actualizers, the type we call Achievers are the next logical adapters of new technology. Achievers may have income levels as high as those of Actualizers, but are very conservative and tend not to be innovators. Achievers will wait to see if the new technology is successful and whether they must buy it to keep up with the competition, before they will use it. However, acceptance of a new technology by achievers will lead to acceptance by other types of consumers in the mass market.
Another group, Makers, are the true do-it-yourself consumers. Makers will conduct their own car repairs, make their own clothes, and have hobbies and crafts as well. They are action oriented. However, Makers tend to have much less income than Actualizers and Achievers and are laggards in the adoption of new technologies. Makers conduct DIY activities in order to save money and to be self-reliant, rather than to gain status or competitve advantage.
Once the machine is installed, and provided materials are inexpensive enough, some consumers are likely to find high-volume applications for it, such as use-once, disposable items, which might become contaminated (eating utensils or medical devices) or be broken (clay pidgeons for shooting target practice) in the natural course of their use, but can then be sanitized (where necessary) and recycled. Recycling will be less of a direct advantage to the users of the PF machines than a characteristic they will want to emphasize, in order to avoid prblems with other consumers with environmental concerns about how such machines might produce excessive amounts of useless junk.
Besides VALS types, another important distinction to make when thinking of the market demand for the personal factory is how homemakers (who are mostly women) might use the PF differently than home repair do-it-yourselfers (who are mostly men). Not only might women use the PF to make different kinds of products for use in the home than men, but they might demand different operation designs than men and might be motivated by different purchase factors than men. Elaine Persall has said that being able to purchase a CAD file of every part on an automobile at the time the new car itself is purchased has a certain attractiveness, in the form of greater security that help will be there when she needs it (in an increasingly complex and time-constrained world, many men may find that attractive as well).
Although still other market considerations are possible, the one final one to be made here is that market demand might be quite different in newly industrialized or developing countries than in what are known as developed countries, the latter of which having consumer markets that are already saturated with products (although they seem to continue to consume more all the time), an established infrastructure of industrial manufacturing and mass production, and slower annual percentage economic growth. Furthermore, product design features in demand in many developing countries may be quite different that what might be made available in products made by OEMs in developed countries, creating a demand some relatively easy way to customize such imported products. SRIs VALS typology method has been established for such countries as the United States, Japan, and the United Kingdom, which has shown that VALS types for one country do not carry over to another country.
The various groups of consumer types just described may have much different levels of disposable income, such as the differences in income between Actualizer and Maker incomes. In developing countries, the average disposable income is likely to be lower than in industrialized countries, although even the relatively small middle class in a heavily populated country can have sufficient personal income to purchase the latest technology. If RP machines are viewed as 3-D printers, one might expect to see prices decline in a pattern similar to 2-D printers; compared to computers, the price decline might be like that of graphics workstations. RP vendors are just beginning to offer $50,000 machines, which means a simple, low-end machine priced at $5,000 is likely to be at least 10 years away. Even a $5000 machine might be too expensive, however. Terry Wohlers argues that a PF will need to cost $1000 or less to be considered for purchase by more than a few consumers.
The Actualizers pursuing intellectual properties may have higher base incomes and be able to afford a higher-priced machine than the Makers or they might be able to more easily attract venture capital for their ideas, but they are likely to be fewer in number. Nonetheless, only the relatively high-income types will be able to afford the early PF machines and only the innovative types, such as Actualizers will take the risk of purchasing such machines. In order for the PF market to last long enough for the less innovative Makers to be able to afford the technology, early machines must be targetted at the Actualizers, and then the high-income Achievers.
As innovators pursuing new ideas become more and more comfortable with CAD technology, they may feel less and less need for a physical part to assure them that their CAD model is correct and they may not feel inclined to pay extra for it. However, given how long it is taking to achieve the paperless office, it is probable that it will take just as long to achieve total comfort with CAD. In his recent column on prototyping for I.D. magazine, Michael Schrage argues that physical prototypes are much stronger motivators of enthusiasm for new product ideas than are any written description or justification. On the other hand, it is not clear how much such consumers will likely be willing to pay for a machine that they may not use very often, rather than go to a service bureau or retail outlet. Even for use as a 3-D fax machine, where volume might be high, they will not likely be willing to pay very much.
Ease of Use
The skill level required to use a personal factory is the factor that is likely to change the fastest. Many of the currently available RP machines require a skilled operator, in order understand the special optics, materials, and software in use in RP machines and to adjust for inaccuracies between the CAD model and the physical output. However, many of the newer, lower-priced machines have fewer adjustments, less difficult materials handling problems, and are becoming more push-button-like in their operation. Many of the newer low-end RP machines are said by vendors to be nearly push-button in their ease of use.
Decreasing prices for and increasing use of 3-D solid modeling CAD software means CAD files are easy to convert for use in RP machines. Many of the leading vendors of such software, such as Parametric Technology, apparently make special efforts to see that their software is compatible with RP. Wohlers points out that 3-D solid modeling software is now available at less that $500 (TriSpectives). Specialized software increasingly processes CAD files automatically to account for production factors.
The exponential increase in the use of the Internet also means greater access by novice users to advice and the potential for transmitting proven CAD files (in the form of closed surface models, solid models, or even models pre-sliced into layers for use in an RP machine, known as an .STL file). In the future, a marketplace is likely to develop for the purchase and sale of such proven CAD files. Individual consumers will be able to download files for replacement and add-on components from CAD libraries available from OEMs or independent aftermarket service companies. Custom parts may be available from independent individuals or from custom service businesses. Shareware or freeware might be traded across the net by individuals and, perhaps, even by OEMs attempting to attract customers to buy other components.
Before high volumes of on-line transactions can occur, industry must develop an adequate and secure electronic payment system and a large number of consumers will need to have access to the network. Several companies are hard at work at a payment system. Netscape Communications uses cryptography in its Web browser, which some consumers have been using to send credit card numbers. First Virtual is taking added precautions with its system, claiming encryption can be circumvented.
It is difficult to determine how many individual users are on the Internet, but only a tiny percent are using computers powerful enough to send and receive CAD files. Another fifteen years may be required before a large enough number of CAD workstations are available in homes to begin a market to sell to personal factories.
Once the infrastructure is in place, however, many new forms of doing business are likely. In addition to working out the security of payment systems, owners of CAD files will want to be able to limit the production of a file that is downloaded for use in the personal factory. They will want to ensure that they receive payment for each copy made, possibly through the use of use-once, self-destructing CAD files. Consumers may also wake up every morning to find the equivalent of 3-D junk mail in their electronic mail box.
Several developments in materials are likely necessary for the personal factory to be successful. The materials to be used in the machines will need to be somewhat less expensive than they are today. Photopolymers for stereolithography RP machines can cost a few hundred dollars per gallon, because of the additives required to make them solidify in the presence of light and to keep properties distributed evenly. A relatively small part might use only $25 worth of material, which is inexpensive for some valuable industrial parts, but very expensive for most common household items. Some of the alternative RP materials, such as paper, are less expensive, but may not be adequate for many of the desired applications, where exposure to water or corrosive fluids is likely.
Materials for use in the home must also be safe for contact with the skin or possible ingestion into the human body. The toxicity of many RP materials in use today is still not well known. Handlers of photopolymers use plastic gloves, to prevent skin irritation, and some RP processes require venting of toxic fumes from the processes or from solvents required for finishing and cleaning. It is also not clear if the powders in use in some processes are safe to inhale over long periods of time.
Recyclable materials will be desirable, particularly for use-once, disposable items, but also for any high-volume applications that evolve. Recyclability within the home will help reduce the cost of using the personal factory. A market might develop for a special peripheral device for regrinding or melting materials to be recycled.
Elaine Persall has pointed out that different materials will be required for different applications and that the PF will not likely use a single material. She also suggests that a healthy market will develop for custom materials. Both concepts are attractive, but will place a heavy requirement on the PF developer to come up with a design that will accept multiple materials in a simple manner. Approaches to RP taken today by Helisys, Stratasys, DTM, and vendors of machines similar in their technologies, seem more versatile for the PF than stereolithographic approaches, but stereolithography still represents the most popular RP approach worldwide.
Material delivery systems will be necessary to bring materials to retail outlets and individual homes. Marshall Burns has suggested that materials could be piped directly to the home. More likely, consumers will order containers shipped to their home or they will go to retail stores to make purchases. In order to order custom materials, consumers may want the option of mixing powders, perhaps like mixing coffee beans is done today, or they may have to form a kind of club of many people, in order to approach a chemical company directly to order a custom batch of materials.
For many applications, a laser scanner or other optical scanner will be desirable. It is not clear if the use in the home will be frequent enough to justify purchase of such a scanner for each home, but a market for scanners in retail firms may develop. Terry Wohlers reports enormous technical problems in attempts to convert 3-D digitized data from a variety of contact and noncontact digitizing systems into RP, especially where internal structures are required, but also for small holes, grooves, slots, deep hidden areas, sharp edges and corners of outer surface areas. Nonetheless, work at the J. Paul Getty Museum, the University of Texas, Austin, and the newly installed (Bill) Gates Computer Science Building at Stanford University, among others, are putting efforts into practical laser scanning and digitizing of physical objects for the expressed purpose of duplicating the objects in an RP machine.
While it is not clear if the personal factory scenario will take place, it is likely that some portion of the products manufactured in the future will occur in locations distant from the OEM. Mass production methods are likely to always have a certain economic advantage, but technology is changing in a way that makes it possible for the consumer to influence certain aspects of the design. Modular designs allow consumers to customize the product by interchanging parts. Adaptable designs allow consumers to personalize products, according to aesthetic taste or ergonomic need. Sensing and measurement technologies make customization and personalization even easier.
Manufacturing products in the home would certainly turn mass production and distribution systems on their heads. Large OEMs would need to determine which components they should make and which they should, perhaps, only design and store electronically. Perhaps they will supply only basic platforms and produce no finished products. Every product will become a prototype, to be finished by the customer.
If I Had a Machine
In 1977, Ken Olsen, founder, president, and chairman of Digital Equipment Corporation, said There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home. Elaine Persall, from her Clemson University RP laboratory (Clemson, South Carolina), recently asked listeners on the Internets Rapid Prototyping Mailing List (RP-ML; founded by André Dolenc, Helsinki University of Technology) what they would make on an RP machine, if they had one in their home. The question was prompted by conversations on the RP-ML about about the availability of CAD files in the form of .STL files for downloading from the Internet into RP machines, ranging from an .STL file of a 14-foot sailing boat, made available by Tony Riek (CSIRO Queensland Manufacturing Institute, Australia), to a request for an .STL file of a whistle. The responses were few, but ranged from custom parts and replacements for lost, broken, or difficult to find parts, to more artistic product design and new business opportunities. The following was my response:
Buttons and bows and things that glow
Cups and plates and things that I break
Custom containers and boxes for lovers
Onion-skin packages that peel back to uncover
Hidden gadgets and pageants of glitter and flutter.
Golf club covers and ball mark repair tools
To give away to friends and fools
Who lose such things as a normal rule
Orthotic running shoe inserts, just for my feet
Or maybe new soles that are neater than neat.
Levers and knobs that fall off of the car
Fasteners in the garage that I now keep in a jar
And anything else I cant find when I want it
And cant remember the last place I bought it
But can get on the Internet from someone whos got it.
Just download that file from Tony or Elaine
Of a sailboat or whistle or a puzzle-type game
Listed on their personal Web site for free
Or maybe I might have to pay a small fee
But a lot less trouble and searching for me.
Everyone will be doing this before long
And then mass production of things will be gone
And the computer networks will really be busy
People selling their files as intellectual properties
To the Hallmarks and Time-Warners and even the Disneys.
I wrote the response in a matter of minutes, just before leaving the United States for an RP conference in Australia. By the time I got to Australia, the poem had made it around the world, via the Internet, and was printed out and copies placed on a publications table on the conference, from which they quickly disappreared. Although the poem itself is not all that well written, the sentiment appears to have touched a human nerve and further indicates to me a desire by people to use RP technology for something more than company business.
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