Financial Times, London, England, Friday January 30th - The following
article on the strategic issues surrounding rapid prototyping technologies
appeared in today's issue of the Financial Times Newspaper.
Spare parts made on the spot
Paul Kidd looks at how developments in rapid prototyping will
affect suppliers and users
Your car is in the garage for repairs. The engine needs a new
piston, but the garage no longer holds stocks of engine
components, nor does the vehicle manufacturer.
Before you get upset, you may want to know that the garage can
make all of the components it needs in a matter of minutes. It
will do so by using the relatively new technology of rapid
prototyping (RP) rather than conventional machines such as
This scenario is yet to become a reality, but the technology is
either already available or on the way. The implications are
significant for manufacturers of RP machines - now used mainly
to speed up product development - and their customers in
The possibilities for the new technology are numerous. RP
machines could be linked via the internet to a manufacturer's
product data systems to produce a replacement component on the
Roadside repairs could be transformed if RP machines were
installed in repair vehicles. Along with the internet, multimedia
and mobile communications technologies, roadside repair personnel
may be able to produce some components of the "get you home"
quality that would do until a permanent repair can be made.
Elsewhere, spare parts for domestic appliances could be
manufactured in high street shops or outside customers' homes in
the service technician's vehicle. Using computer-aided design
(CAD) technologies and virtual reality it may even be possible
to design and have produced in the local DIY store, custom-made
components for home improvement and repair work. Smaller, less
accurate systems might also be available for home use.
The primary technology at the core of these scenarios, RP,
represent a convergence of new materials and IT. This enables a
means of manufacturing that involves building components layer
by layer, using materials such as paper, wax and thermopolymer.
RP technologies first appeared on the market in 1988 and in the
early days they were initially used to create physical models of
part designs developed by engineers using CAD systems. Materials
and secondary processes quickly appeared that allowed these
models to be used in the production of tooling, from which
components such as castings and moulded plastics could be
But RP has now reached a stage where "these secondary tooling
methods will ultimately become redundant", according to David
Whinpenny, of the Rapid Prototyping and Tooling Centre at the
University of Warwick.
It is already possible to manufacture tooling directly without
having to create physical models first. By 2010, RP machinery
that directly manufactures metal components should be in wide
commercial use. This will not only remove the need for tooling
and enable wider uses of RP, but will also challenge the
dominance of older technologies such as the milling machine.
The technological advances needed to get there are already being
addressed by RP equipment producers and university research
groups. The main issues are increasing the size of components
that can be produced, improving accuracy and surface finish, and
expanding the range of materials to enable the manufacture of
metal parts with adequate strength.
For the RP equipment suppliers a strategic shift will be needed.
At present, they focus on supporting manufacturing companies or
independent RP bureaux with machines suitable for factory and
This will represent only one market for the vendors'
technologies. Other niches, with different needs and
expectations, could provide opportunities for growth, obliging
vendors to develop easy-to-use commodity items out of their
current more specialist RP products. On the other hand, the
creation of new markets should also help vendors to recover
research and development costs more quickly and create economies
of scale, and that will benefit their present manufacturing
customers in the longer term.
Users, meanwhile, will need to understand that RP is opening up
a wide range of new strategic options. Although the current focus
on using RP for taking time and cost out of new product
development is understandable, it is short sighted, as it does
not fully exploit RP's current capabilities, let alone future
"Too many companies have a blind spot to the strategic dimension
of RP technologies", says Gunther Kruse, recently director of
manufacturing strategy at KPMG and now a partner at Scope
Management of London. "Commonly, the innovative aspects have not
been fully exploited or only slowly understood by firms".
Companies should be looking at how they can apply RP 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 and
The potential of RP will not be fully realised so long as
companies persist in using RP processes to do only what they do
already, but faster and cheaper. The opportunity to invent a
different future will be left unexplored.
The author is a freelance researcher and consultant on strategic
technology management issues.
The strategic issues surrounding RP technologies are explored in
detail in a new management report by Cheshire Henbury, tel UK
(0)1625 619313; fax UK (0)1625 619060; e-mail
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