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Rapid prototyping

is the name given to a host of related


technologies that are used to fabricate
physical objects directly from CAD data
sources. These methods are unique in that
they add and bond materials in layers to
form objects. Such systems are also known
by the names additive fabrication, three
dimensional printing, solid freeform
fabrication and layered manufacturing.
They offer advantages in many applications
compared to classical subtractive
fabrication methods such as milling or
turning:
Objects can be formed with any geometric
complexity or intricacy without the need
for elaborate machine setup or final
assembly;
Objects can be made from multiple materials, or as composites, or materials can
even be varied in a controlled fashion at any location in an object;
Additive fabrication systems reduce the construction of complex objects to a
manageable, straightforward, and relatively fast process.
These properties have resulted in their wide use as a way to reduce time to market in
manufacturing. Today's systems are heavily used by engineers to better understand and
communicate their product designs as well as to make rapid tooling to manufacture
those products. Surgeons, architects, artists and individuals from many other
disciplines also routinely use the technology.
The names of specific processes themselves are also often used as synonyms for the
entire field of rapid prototyping. Among these are stereolithography (SLA for
stereolithography apparatus), selective laser sintering (SLS), fused deposition
modeling (FDM), laminated object manufacturing (LOM), inkjet-based systems and
three dimensional printing (3DP). Each of these technologies - and the many other
rapid prototyping processes - has its singular strengths and weaknesses.

Reverse engineering (RE) used to be a nefarious term. It formerly meant


making a copy of a product, or the outright stealing of ideas from competitors. In
current usage, however, RE has taken on a more positive character and now simply
refers to the process of creating a descriptive data set from a physical object. RE
methods and technologies can still be used for negative purposes like those
mentioned, but today there are numerous important legitimate applications for RE, as
well.
This has come about over the last fifteen or more years due to the intense parallel
development of many different types of three dimensional digitizing devices, and the

powerful reverse engineering software that allows the data they produce to be
manipulated into a useful form.
There are two parts to any reverse engineering application: scanning and data
manipulation. Scanning, also called digitizing, is the process of gathering the requisite
data from an object. Many different technologies are used to collect three dimensional
data. They range from mechanical and very slow, to radiation-based and highlyautomated. Each technology has its advantages and disadvantages, and their
applications and specifications overlap. What eventually comes out of each of these
data collection devices, however, is a description of the physical object in threedimensional space called a point cloud.
Point cloud data typically define numerous points on the surface of the object in terms
of x,y, and z coordinates. At each x,y,z coordinate in the data where there is a point,
there is a surface coordinate of the original object. However, some scanners, such as
those based on X-rays, can see inside an object. In that case, the point cloud also
defines interior locations of the object, and may also describe its density.
Typical RE Applications
Creating data to refurbish
or manufacture a part for
which there is no CAD
data, or for which the data
has become obsolete or
lost.
Inspection and/or Quality
Control - Comparing a
fabricated part to its CAD
description or to a standard
item.
Creating 3D data from a
model or sculpture for
animation in games and
movies.

Creating 3D data from an


individual, model or
sculpture for creating,
scaling or reproducing
artwork.

Generating data to create


dental or surgical
prosthetics, tissueengineered body parts, or
for surgical planning.

Documentation and/or
measurement of cultural
objects or artifacts in
archaeology, paleontology
and other scientific fields.

Documentation and
reproduction of crime
scenes.

Fitting clothing or footwear


to individuals and
determining the
anthropometry of a
population

Architectural and
construction documentation
and measurement.

There is usually far too much data in the point cloud collected from the scanner or
digitizer, and some of it may be unwanted noise. Without further processing, the data
isnt in a form that can be used by downstream applications such as CAD/CAM
software or in rapid prototyping. Reverse engineering software is used to edit the
point cloud data, establish the interconnectedness of the points in the cloud, and
translate it into useful formats such as surface models or STL files. It also allows
several different scans of an object to be melded together so that the data describing
the object can be defined completely from all sides and directions.
Usually, the shortest part of any RE task is scanning or data collection. While there
are exceptions, scanning might only require a few seconds or a few minutes. On the
other hand, manipulating the data can be quite time-consuming and labor-intensive. It

may even require days to complete this part of the job. The situation is analogous to
scanning two-dimensional printed or photographic materials. It doesnt usually take
very long to scan a picture or a diagram - but getting that picture into a presentable
form can be quite a lot of work, indeed.

Not all applications are created equal. Engineering is more exacting than creating
a 3D model for a movie, for example. If you need to ascertain dimensions precisely,
more care and diligence must be used and measurement error quantified. But accuracy
and fidelity requirements are not limited to engineering. Many artistic and
architectural applications also have substantial accuracy requirements. After all,
would the data set that defines Michaelangelos David be worth anything if it was
inaccurate? In some respects, aesthetic applications can be more challenging than
engineering. While there may not be as great a need for absolute dimensional
precision, requirements for the reproduction of surface qualities, or acquiring data
from difficult subjects such as hair, represent a considerable challenge.

Dozens of companies make three dimensional digitizers and scanners,


and its a frequently changing cast of characters. Instruments are available to digitize
objects from microscopic in size to entire construction projects or large portions of oil
refineries. Data acquisition speeds range from a few points per minute using manual
technologies, to more than a million points per second. Prices range from a couple of
thousand dollars to hundreds of thousands of dollars. To a great extent this situation
reflects the wide range of applications that are presented to this class of devices. But
the very exuberance of engineering approaches may also be indicative of an immature
market and technology base. Rapid prototyping is another field that exhibits a
similarly wide range of technologies, and perhaps it is not a coincidence that reverse
engineering may be considered reverse-rapid prototyping.

Digitizers have numerous specifications, but there are just three key ones:
volume, accuracy and speed. Volume is self-explanatory, but it should be noted that
for most technologies its not actually much of a limitation. Thats because its
possible to stitch together numerous scans using RE software to accommodate objects
that are much larger than the available scanning volume. The tradeoff is time and
accuracy, however.
Accuracy and resolution are related, but not the same. Accuracy refers
to how precisely the measurements correspond to dimensional
standards. Resolution specifies the smallest increment of distance or
volume that the instrument can measure. Its possible for an instrument
to have high resolution and be inaccurate, and vice versa. Some
manufacturers specify one value and not the other, and each uses its
own terminology and conditions. Different specifications can apply to
each axis of measurement, as well. Accuracy and resolution are the
main "weasel clauses" in most digitizer specs. If they are critical to

your application, it may be necessary to get further data from the


manufacturer or perform certification testing.
Speed is frequently given in points/second. Here again, there is
great variation among manufacturers in terminology and
conditions. Some manufacturers supply essentially anecdotal
specifications or no information at all. Nevertheless, its usually
possible to at least get an idea of the regimen the instrument falls
into.

An important basic distinction among digitizing technologies is between


contacting and non-contacting instruments. Contacting digitizers, or touch-probes, are
often very accurate over a wide measurement volume, and some instruments in this
class are among the most affordable devices available. There are contact digitizers
that are positioned manually to yield a single measurement at a time, or may be
scanned across a surface to produce a series of measurements. There are also touch
probe instruments available which can automatically scan an object using a variety of
mechanical drive means. Contact instruments are often in the form of an articulated
arm that allows for multiple degrees of freedom of movement. The position of each
section of the arm is determined by encoders, glass scales, or in the case of the more
inexpensive devices, by potentiometers mounted in each joint. Other mechanical
arrangements besides arms are also used.
On the down-side, contacting devices can distort soft objects such as auto upholstery,
and are too slow to digitize parts of human bodies, or may require much labor to scan
complex curved surfaces. On the other hand, they are not affected by the color of a
surface or if it is transparent or reflective, the way laser and other light-based systems
may be. And while slow, they may actually be the fastest way to digitize simple
surfaces where just a few data points need be gathered. Manually positioned devices
can also make it easier to get at hard to digitize areas of an object such as narrow slots
or pockets

Laser-based Systems

Line and Spot Scanners / Triangulation


The two major classes of non-contact scanners are those based on laser technology
and those based on some form of non-coherent, white, or broadband light source.
Laser scanners most often use straightforward geometric triangulation to determine
the surface coordinates of objects. A laser line is scanned on the target object and
individual sensors image the line, usually simultaneously from each side of the line.
Where the laser line's image falls on each sensor, most often a CCD array, is easily
determined and the rules of trigonometry are then applied to calculate the position of
the target surface at each point on the laser line. The simplicity of the technique and
its ability to fairly quickly digitize a substantial volume with good accuracy and

resolution have made laser line scanners a popular choice. Products are supplied both
as complete systems, and as self-contained measuring heads for mounting to standard
touch-probe arms or in other ways, including customized mechanical fixtures for
specialized applications.
Laser and other light-based systems may be affected by the color of a surface or if it is
transparent or reflective. As more experience has been gained over the years,
however, users have become adept at work-arounds for surface problems which may
cause errors. One must also be appropriately safety conscious when using any laser
source. Even though most lasers used for scanning are rated well below any harmful
threshold, reflections on curved surfaces and other inadvertent events can result in a
potentially harmful focused beam.

Dual-Capability Systems
Many companies that make contact digitizing instruments, as well as many of those
that make laser scanners, provide turnkey products that have both of these quite
complementary capabilities. Broad areas can be quickly scanned using a laser device
mounted on the arm, and features which might be geometrically problematic for the
laser can be contact-probed. Some companies provide instruments which can carry
both a contact probe and a laser head simultaneously.
A few companies provide color laser scanning technology. Arius 3D uses a
multiplexed arrangement of red, green and blue lasers to simultaneously gather color
and geometric data. The company mainly offers scanning services, however, rather
than selling equipment. Other companies such as Minolta and Cyberware use laser
scanning to gather surface measurements and combine that data with color video
information gathered separately. Most color scanners use structured white light or
broadband sources. See that section.

Other Types of Laser Systems


Several additional laser technologies are also utilized, including time of flight, optical
radar and laser tracking. In general, these methods offer good accuracy combined with
the capability of making measurements from a long distance away from the subject in some cases tens of meters. This so-called "stand-off" distance is important for
applications such as digitizing large machinery, buildings, and the like, which
represent a large fraction of the applications for these technologies.
Time of flight systems measure how long it takes for light emitted by a laser to return
to a sensor located near its source. Optical radar systems are similar in operation, and
both are analogous to standard radar systems which measure the return-time of a radio
wave. Time of flight and radar systems don't usually require retroreflectors mounted
on the object to be measured and can operate at very high rates to quickly capture
entire scenes or objects. In contrast, laser trackers look for a signal in their field of
view from a retroreflector placed or held on the object. The main advantage these
systems offer is high precision over a large working volume and a frequent use is for
aligning large pieces of machinery or verifying as-built dimensions of large objects.

Other Types of Tracking Systems


Directory of Commercial
Providers of this Technology ...
In addition to laser-based tracking systems, a number of companies make LED-based
and other types of tracking systems, such as magnetic trackers. These technologies
generally have smaller working envelopes than laser-based systems and may not be
quite as accurate. They're most frequently used in human and other types of motion
studies, but are also useful for reverse engineering. A probe with one or more LED's is
touched or attached to the object to be digitized. Sensors, most often utilizing CCD
chips in a dual camera arrangement, image the LED's in their field of view. As with
laser scanners, trigonometry is then used to calculate the position of the probe on the
surface of the object. Encoding schemes based on high-speed modulation of the light
emitted by the LED's allow some instruments to simultaneously track the position of
hundreds of LED's.
Magnetic trackers offer the added benefit of being able to digitize points on objects
that are not within a direct line of sight. Instead of an LED probe, these systems use a
small wire coil as a target. One company that makes magnetic trackers, Polhemus,
combines this technology with laser scanning. The result is a system that has many of
the same features as laser scanners mounted on mechanical arms, while providing
very great freedom of movement.
In RE applications, these systems provide good accuracy over a substantial volume
and moderate speeds. They aren't affected by surface quality or color. On the downside, they require a contacting probe or marker and can be slow to digitize complex
surfaces.

Rapid prototyping systems can't yet produce parts in a wide enough range of
materials, at a fast enough rate, to match anywhere near the entire spectrum of
requirements of industry and science. Nevertheless, an increasing number of
applications are taking advantage of additive fabrication and now incorporate parts
that are directly made by RP processes. Today, typically these requirements are for
low-volume items with complex geometries used in high value added applications
such as medicine or aerospace. As materials and technologies have improved, and as
the capabilities have become more widely understood, direct manufacturing has
become a fast growing area in RP.
To address a wider range of applications sooner, RP is also often used as the starting
point for making conventional fabrication processes faster, cheaper and better. Rapid
prototyping is used in two ways to accomplish this: Molds may be directly fabricated
by an RP system, or RP-generated parts can be used as patterns for fabricating a mold
through so-called indirect or secondary processes.
Indirect or Secondary Processes
Typically a part made by the RP system is used as a pattern or model in these

processes. While more than two dozen of them are in various stages of development,
just a few are common and commercially important today.
Direct Processes
Specialized rapid prototyping processes have been developed to meet specific
application and material requirements for molding and casting. These may be forms of
basic RP processes, such as stereolithography or selective laser sintering, or may be
unique RP methods developed for a specific application. As in the case of indirect or
secondary processes, there are a large number of technologies being explored, but
only a few are commercially important today.

The principal ways of using RP to generate injection molds today are


presented below in approximately increasing order of cost and part quantity. If only a
few parts are needed, RTV silicone rubber tooling is often the best choice. Beyond
about 50 parts, or to study the operation of a production mold or for other reasons, it
will probably be advantageous to choose one of the other RP injection mold
fabrication methods.
Why Use Rapid Prototyping to Make Injection Molds?
Skilled craftspeople are in short supply, product complexity is increasing and product
cycles are growing ever shorter. This means that an ever larger number of more
precise tools have to be created by a declining population of toolmakers. There is
therefore a great deal to gain from a process which provides both great time and labor
savings and addresses these limitations head-on. In addition, RP offers the tantalizing
prospect for improvement in mold performance beyond anything that can be
accomplished with subtractive technologies. The ability to fabricate complex
conformal cooling channels to provide better thermal performance, or to use multiple
or gradient materials to optimize each portion of a mold for performance and cost,
may ultimately lead to a revolution across the entire field.
What are the Limitations?
Rapid prototyping injection mold fabrication methods should be considered for
projects in which the reduction of time to market is important, for prototype and short
to medium volume production runs, and for parts which may be very hard to machine
because of their geometry. The general limitations of RP methods compared to CNC
today are:

they produce somewhat less accurate and less durable tools,


they may have part size and geometry limitations,
they don't necessarily produce identical parts to hard tooling, and,
RP-generated tools may not easily be modified or corrected using typical
toolmaking techniques.

These limitations vary both as function of the specific RP technology used and for
each individual case.
Selecting a Process.
Selection of the optimum RP-based process for each case is complex. Among the

factors to consider are the final application, production volume, part size, accuracy
and material requirements.

Manual Part Fabrication Methods


RTV Silicone Rubber Tooling.
This is a popular method of making small quantities of polymer parts. Any rapid
prototyping-generated part can be used as a pattern to make silicone rubber tooling.
These tools can be used to mold small to medium quantities of parts in a large variety
of urethane, epoxy or other polymers. If quantities greater than about 10 to 50 are
needed, an injection mold may be the way to go. There are many suppliers for this
process, as well as the very similar aluminum-filled epoxy, sprayed metal and kirksite
tooling methods.

Injection Mold Fabrication Methods


Indirect or Secondary Processes that Utilize RP-generated Patterns.
Aluminum-filled Epoxy Tooling.
Aluminum-filled epoxy tooling is a good choice for short prototype or production
runs for applications that require a final engineering thermoplastic. These tools are
fabricated much like RTV silicone rubber tooling. Aluminum-filled epoxy tools work
best for relatively simple shapes with tool life adequate for anywhere from 50 to
1,000 parts, depending on requirements. (Many suppliers.)
Spray Metal Tooling.
These tools and the methods for making them are very similar to aluminum-filled
epoxy tooling. Tool life is about the same as well, but the method can accommodate
larger parts. (Many suppliers.)
Kirksite Tooling.
Similar to, but less accurate than aluminum-filled epoxy or spray metal, but a good
choice for more complex parts in quantities up to about 1,000. (Many suppliers.)

Direct Fabrication of Injection Molds


Soft Tooling From Metals
The EOS GmbH Direct Metal Laser SinteringTM (DMLS) SLS process can use a
bronze alloy which offers a step up in soft tooling over epoxy-based stereolithography

methods. As many as several thousand relatively simple parts have been produced
from such DMLS molds.
Hard Tooling From Metals
3D Systems' selective laser sintering process for metals uses polymer-coated steel
powders. The resultant green part is burned out, sintered and infiltrated with bronze in
secondary furnace operations to produce a fully-dense mold with about 70% steel
content. EOS's DMLS process for bronze alloys and steel powders doesn't require
secondary sintering and burnout cycles in a furnace because the parts produced are
already at 95% density. These steel-based processes offer the greatest benefit for
small, complex geometry parts that would be difficult to machine.

A process from ProMetal, a division of ExOne Company, competes with these


methods. It's based on Three Dimensional Printing technology developed at MIT.
Processes based on laser powder forming technologies are in early commercialization
stages. Optomec Design Corp., POM-Group and other companies offer methods that
create fully-dense, hard tools in multiple materials and with conformal cooling.

Functional Parts and Tools


From Rapid Prototyping
Rapid Manufacturing; A Brief Introduction
Parts made by rapid prototyping systems may be used directly in many final
applications today. This was not true just a short a while ago and reflects great strides
in materials and systems that have been spurred by insistent market forces. Rapid
prototyping-generated parts may well offer a direct solution to application problems
having material requirements ranging from plastics or ceramics, to steel or titanium.
RP is making its greatest headway in direct manufacturing applications that take
advantage of the unique benefits of additive fabrication. It has long been accepted that
RP is a solution for fabricating geometrically-complex, low-volume or customized
parts. RP is now also being increasingly recognized as a means to produce materials
in forms and combinations not otherwise possible. While still mostly in the
development stage, the range of potential applications is very broad. It extends from
the microscopic scale of nano-devices and integrated circuits to the construction of
entire buildings, boat hulls and the like. In some cases RP's nominal liabilities are
being turned into advantages. For example, the capability of some RP technologies to
create porous parts is being found useful in fabricating complex filters, gas storage
devices and similar products.
Descriptions of many of the RP technologies available for direct
manufacturing are provided in the sections under injection molds.
Also see the RT/RM Technology Comparison tables.

See the rapid manufacturing section for an extensive exploration of


the enormous potential of this application of additive fabrication.

Direct fabrication of plastic parts


Plastic parts are most often directly fabricated for end use using selective laser
sintering (SLS), fused deposition modeling (FDM) or stereolithography. Other
technologies are also used, but these are the main ones that are of commercial
importance at present. The choice of a technology is most greatly influenced by the
end-use material requirements.
The development of photopolymers for use in stereolithography and similar lightbased technologies has led to materials that exhibit a wide range of properties.
Materials are available that mimic the mechanical properties of polypropylene and
other plastics, exhibit flexibility for snap-fits and have optical properties such as high
transparency. Efforts are ongoing to develop specialized photopolymers to widen their
applications. Materials with properties such as low shrinkage, rubber-like flexibility
and thermal conductivity, or to address specialized applications such as the
construction of scaffolds for tissue engineering are in development. While today's
materials can solve many problems and the future looks very promising,
photopolymers are analogs of engineering plastics. They may not possess all of the
properties required for a particular application.
Both selective laser sintering and fused deposition modeling can produce parts in final
engineering polymers. They may offer solutions when photopolymer-based
technologies cannot. SLS can be used to fabricate parts in several types of engineering
plastics, including glass-filled nylon. FDM can fabricate parts in ABS,
polyphenylsulfone, polycarbonate, polyester and a few other materials. These
technologies may offer parts with additional strength or other properties not currently
available from photopolymers. One thing to note is that the properties will not be the
same as a part fabricated in an injection molding process of the same material,
however.

Direct fabrication of metal parts


Metal parts are most often directly fabricated with selective laser sintering or laser
powder forming processes. Here again, other technologies can be used, but these are
the most commercially important ones at the moment. SLS can be used to fabricate
steel, stainless steel and bronze parts. Porosity is eliminated by secondary metal
infiltration. Parts usually need final machining and their properties will not be quite
the same as parts formed entirely of the intrinsic material. Laser powder forming
processes can produce parts in steels, titanium and other metals at full density.
However, this desirable characteristic may have to be traded-off against somewhat
higher finish machining requirements compared to SLS. Direct fabrication of metal
parts is finding its greatest application in high value-added applications such as
aerospace and medicine.

Rapid Tooling
While there is much progress in direct part fabrication, even the fastest RP systems are
still far too slow and are limited in other ways: They simply can't produce parts in a wide
enough range of materials, at a fast enough rate, to match the enormous spectrum of
requirements of industry. Conventional processes such as molding and casting are still
the only means available to do that. However, RP is often the starting point for making
these manufacturing processes faster, cheaper and better. Indeed, the fabrication of
tooling is perhaps at present the most important application of direct manufacturing.
Rapid prototyping is used in two ways to make tooling: Molds may be directly
fabricated by an RP system, or RP-generated parts can be used as patterns for fabricating
a mold through so-called indirect or secondary processes.
Direct Fabrication Processes
Specialized rapid prototyping processes have been developed to meet specific application
and material requirements for molding and casting. These may be forms of basic RP
processes, such as stereolithography or selective laser sintering, or may be unique RP
methods developed for a specific application. There are a large number of technologies
being explored, but only a few are commercially important at present.

Indirect or Secondary Processes


Although the properties of RP materials improve
and expand continuously, a limitless array of
applications means that there will always be a
need to transfer parts fabricated in a material used
in an RP process into yet another material. In
addition, it's usually necessary to use very
specific materials to make most tools.
Consequently, numerous material transfer
technologies have been developed. Typically a
part made by the RP system is used as a pattern or
model in these processes. As in the case of the
direct fabrication processes discussed above,
there are many secondary processes in various
stages of development. However, of the more
than two dozen such methods available, just a few
are common and commercially important today.
Choosing Isn't Easy
The net result is that there are a bewildering
number of routes to get to a final functional part
or tool starting from a CAD definition. The
choice depends on:

About RP-generated
Patterns
RP-generated patterns must
undergo finishing operations
before they can be used in any
indirect or secondary process.
No rapid prototyping technology
today delivers surface finishes
that are adequate for accurate
applications such as injection
mold tooling. Removal of the
stair-stepping inherent in the
process and other surface
artifacts is necessary before
parts will eject from a mold, and
may lead to additional errors
being introduced. The accuracy
of most secondary processes is
ultimately limited by the
precision of the pattern after
finishing. Rapid prototyping
patterns are best for applications
with just a few critical
dimensions: If many tight
tolerances must be held, it's
generally still faster and cheaper
to use CNC.

the application,
volume of parts to be produced,
final material and accuracy requirements,
rapid prototyping process used,

and numerous other factors. Choosing isn't easy since most technologies are
immature, have significant limitations, and there are usually several competing
alternatives. The tables accompanying this section provide basic selection
information.

Plastic or Polymer Parts


Silicone tools can typically be used to mold several parts before it becomes necessary
to replace them. The number depends on accuracy and finish requirements and the
specific geometry of the item produced. It may be possible to make many dozens of
simple, or non-critical parts from a single silicone rubber mold, but ten to twenty is
typical if the parts are more complex. Wear of the mold occurs due to the exothermic
and reactive nature of the polymers, and because of the necessity to mechanically
deform the mold to remove the part. It may often be necessary to replace the RPgenerated pattern as well, depending on the number of molds to be made and similar
accuracy and geometric considerations.
The process is carried out by placing the RP-generated pattern in a frame, usually
made of wood. The pattern itself usually must undergo secondary operations to bring
it to the desired state of accuracy and finish before it can be used. See the section on
RP-generated patterns. Silicone rubber room temperature vulcanizing (RTV) molding
compound is then poured around the pattern. It may be necessary to apply a vacuum
to the assembly to pull air bubbles out of the rubber and insure fidelity to the pattern.
Once the rubber has solidified, the pattern is removed and the mold is ready to be
used.

Silicone rubber tooling is most often used in manual casting processes, but in recent
years more automated technologies have appeared. So-called reaction injection
molding (RIM) systems can produce several parts per hour from rubber molds. Molds
also last longer because of the lower exposure time to chemical processes. A number
of other variants of the process are also available from particular vendors, such as
rubber plaster molding. RPM allows the technique to be extended to other materials,
such as metals.

Injection Molds & Metal Parts


The intent is frequently to fabricate injection molds faster and at lower cost than
possible with subtractive technology. RP is also sometimes used to get an idea of how
production tools will perform. Rapid tooling molds are used to make thermoplastic
parts in quantities of few dozen for testing or prototyping, to production quantities
ranging to a million or more. In addition, these same technologies are being used more
for the direct fabrication of metal parts. Even though many of these technologies arose

initially as solutions for tooling, it's a good bet that the majority of parts fabricated
with them today are end-use items.
Why Use Rapid Prototyping?
Interest in the development of injection molds by rapid prototyping technology has
been strong. Making injection molds by subtractive CNC or spark erosion methods is
extremely slow and expensive. Skilled craftspeople are in short supply, product
complexity is increasing and product cycles are growing ever shorter. This means that
an ever larger number of more precise tools have to be created by a declining
population of toolmakers. There is therefore a good deal to gain from a process which
provides both great time and labor savings and addresses these limitations. In addition,
RP offers the prospect for improvement in mold performance beyond anything that can
be accomplished with subtractive technologies. The ability to fabricate complex
conformal cooling channels to provide better thermal performance, or to use multiple
or gradient materials to optimize each portion of a mold for performance and cost, may
ultimately lead to a revolution across the entire field. Decreases in cycle times of 20 to
30%, or more, in experimental molds have been achieved, for example. Consequently,
this application has been a major driving force in the development of rapid prototyping
technologies that produce metal parts as well as in material transfer processes that use
RP-generated patterns.
What are the Limitations?
The long-term prospect is for the direct additive fabrication of injection molds with
the same level of precision and durability as CNC methods. While great strides have
been made in that direction, and important time and labor savings are being realized
today by RP methods, the technology is still immature. This means that the benefits
realized are not universal and must be evaluated for each case. Rapid prototyping
injection mold fabrication methods should be considered for projects in which:

the reduction of time to market is important,


for prototype and short to medium volume production runs, and
for parts which may be very hard to machine because of their geometry.

The general limitations of RP methods compared to CNC today are:

they produce somewhat less accurate and less durable tools,


may have part size and geometry limitations,
don't necessarily produce identical parts to hardened tooling, and
tools may not easily be modified or corrected using typical toolmaking
techniques.

These limitations vary both as function of the specific RP technology used and for
each individual case. The inability to modify many tools fabricated by RP technology
means that making such a tool is frequently a one-shot deal; if it's not right the first
time, it may be necessary to scrap the tool and start over. Rapid tooling may lose its
advantage compared to conventional tooling methods under those circumstances.

Selecting a Process
Selection of the optimum RP-based process for each case is complex. Among the
factors to consider are the final application, production volume, part size, accuracy
and material requirements. The descriptions of the available technologies here provide
a general guide for selection, as well as places to learn more. One important thing to
keep in mind at the present state of the art is that while direct RP tool generation
methods may actually offer faster turn-around, one of the indirect processes may offer
lower costs and higher accuracy. Another thing to keep in mind is that it's sometimes
appropriate to fabricate part of a tool with CNC technology and part using RP
methods. The most economic and appropriate process must be selected for each
portion of a tool, and not necessarily for the tool as a whole.
Other Technologies
This is not an all-inclusive listing. Many other technologies are being explored in
corporate, university and government laboratories. Indeed, several companies,
particularly in Europe, are developing proprietary rapid tooling methods for their
exclusive internal use in the hopes of obtaining a competitive advantage. There are
also a number of methods which have not succeeded commercially over the course of
several years, but are still being pursued on an experimental or limited commercial
basis.
The great majority of molds today are still made using subtractive fabrication.
Market acceptance for RP-based methods will continue to increase as business
demands faster time to market, more individualized and shorter run products, and
existing technical limitations are overcome.

Metal Castings
Investment Castings
Numerous RP technologies are appropriate for use as investment casting patterns.
These material displacement casting methods are among the first industrial processes
ever developed and are thousands of years old. The castings produced can be
exquisitely detailed and intricate. Beeswax was the first material used for patterns, but
the process is so adaptable that bees themselves have been used as patterns to produce
stunningly detailed gold jewelry. More environmentally and socially conscious
jewelry is a significant application of rapid prototyping-generated casting patterns
even today. There are numerous applications in industry where parts are produced in a
variety of metals with castings weighing up to several hundred pounds.
These processes typically involve thickly coating, or investing, a pattern which is
made of a material that melts or burns out easily with a material such as ceramic,
which doesn't. The pattern may be extended to provide a gate into which metal in a
hot, liquid state is poured. Passageways are also provided to allow melted or burned
pattern material and air to escape. The invested pattern is then fired in a furnace to
burn out or melt the pattern and fuse the ceramic into a strong hollow mold. Molten
metal is then poured into the ceramic mold. After the metal cools and hardens, the
mold is broken away to reveal the final object. Extra gate material is cut off and
usually the part will require substantial finish machining and clean-up.

Indirect or Secondary Processes that Utilize RP-generated Patterns


RP-generated patterns can be obtained from fused deposition modeling (FDM) in
wax, selective laser sintering (SLS) in polystyrene or other plastics, and inkjet
technology in wax-like plastics. These materials may be melted or burned out of the
investment very cleanly. The patterns from these processes tend to be small to
medium in size, and especially for inkjets, offer the highest resolution and detail.
Stereolithography is also used to produce patterns for investment casting, but the
photopolymer materials used in that process are more difficult to burn out than the
materials used in others mentioned above, and also have a tendency to expand and
crack the mold. To get around these problems, 3D Systems has produced a special
build style for this application, with the trade name QuickCastTM. The RP-generated
pattern is built in hollow, thin sections which tend to crumple during burn out rather
than expand and also results in a smaller mass of pattern material to remove. The

process has been developed over a number of years in partnership with large foundry
companies and customers.
Laminated object manufacturing (LOM) has also been used for investment casting,
although a more typical application is for sand casting. See below. The paper material
used in the LOM process is said to sometimes be difficult to remove completely from
the mold, although this is probably a strong function of the particular geometry being
produced.

Direct Fabrication of Investment Patterns


Soligen is a licensee of MIT's 3D Printing process and uses it to produce investments
directly without patterns at all. Binder is deposited to bond a bed of ceramic powder
in layerwise cross sections to sequentially build up the investment. Extra powder is
brushed and vacuumed from the green part which is fired to consolidate it in a process
similar to a conventional burn out. Soligen is vertically integrated to produce the final
parts in its own foundry.
Another MIT 3DP licensee, Z Corp. introduced the ZCastTM process in 2002, which is
very similar in concept to Soligen's technology. The process uses slightly modified
versions of the company's Z406 and Z810 printers and was developed in conjunction
with Griffin Industries. Z Corp. is first introducing the ability to cast low temperature
materials such as aluminum, zinc and magnesium, but has a long-term goal of casting
high temperature ferrous materials. Finishes are said to be similar to those available
from sand casting and parts can be finish-machined normally.

Sand Castings
The sand casting process starts by tightly compacting fine, moist foundry sand in a
box-like frame around a pattern which is typically made of wood. The pattern is
removed from the sand to leave a cavity into which the molten metal is poured. Once
the metal cools and hardens, it's removed from the sand, which is then recycled. As
with investment casting, it may be necessary to remove extra material and perform
finish machining and clean-up.

Indirect or Secondary Processes that Utilize RP-generated Patterns


Laminated object manufacturing (LOM) has been a popular way to produce patterns
for sand castings. The large size of parts that can be produced, and their similarity to
wood patterns historically used in the process have been important factors. It may be
necessary to seal the LOM-generated pattern against moisture to guarantee
dimensional stability.
Parts made using other methods of RP, such as stereolithography are also used in the
process, and may have some advantages compared to laminated object manufacturing
in terms of tolerances, finish and dimensional stability. However, sand casting is often
used for very large parts and LOM has an advantage there.

Direct Fabrication of Sand Casting Patterns

It's possible to skip the step of building a pattern for a sand casting mold altogether.
This may be advantageous in the early stages of a project before final dimensions and
other parameters may have been determined, or if very few castings are required,
making the cost of producing a pattern prohibitive.
Selective laser sintering (SLS) systems are available that fuse polymer coated sand
layer by layer to form sand casting molds. Both manufacturers of SLS systems, 3D
Systems (products inherited from DTM) and EOS GmbH, produce systems with this
capability. EOS's method has been dubbed, DirectCroningTM. One limitation these
methods have is in the size of molds they can produce.
A solution for much larger parts is offered by ProMetal RCT GmbH of Germany.
Formerly Generis GmbH, ProMetal RCT (Rapid Casting Technology) is
commercializing the S15 System. This machine uses a wide area inkjet to bond layers
of sand into sand casting and core patterns, and has a build volume of 59 x 29 x 29
inches. The method is reminiscent of the 3 Dimensional Printing process developed
by MIT. A build chamber full of sand weighs several tons.
Clinkenbeard & Associates offers a process that avoids the use of additive fabrication
altogether. Fairly robust blocks of sand are formed using a polymer binder. The blocks
are subsequently machined using diamond tools and standard CNC techniques to
fabricate a hollow mold in which metal is directly cast.

Die-Castings
The processes that are used to make metal die casting molds are similar those used to
fabricate metal injection molds. Please see that section. However, low-cost prototype
plaster die casting molds have also been fabricated using RP generated patterns. This
is accomplished by casting plaster material against an RP-generated pattern in a
process similar to making an RTV rubber mold.

INTRODUCTION
Definition
Rapid manufacturing (RM) is the use of additive fabrication technology to
directly produce useable products or parts. As is the case with rapid
prototyping, the field is also known by several other names such as direct
manufacturing, direct fabrication and digital manufacturing. It may also be
referred to by the names of one or more of the several technologies utilized; a
number which is continuously growing.
RM is one of the three major blossoming outgrowths of rapid prototyping.
The others are three-dimensional printing - a lower-cost flavor of RP, and
rapid tooling - actually a special case of rapid manufacturing. Today the

distinctions among the trunk and branches of the RP tree are not very clear.
Moreover, these differences can be expected to continue to blur as the
technologies mature and applications, specifications and capabilities of the
branches overlap more and more.
Present Status
What we see today is only a pale outline of the future. A few RP systems
specifically aimed at rapid manufacturing applications are just beginning to
appear commercially. RM is not yet being practiced at present, at least
publicly, in any large way. However, many experiments that adapt existing RP
systems to specific RM applications are underway on a proprietary basis. As
technology, materials and other barriers are overcome, additive fabrication
will find its way into the mainstream across a broad spectrum of applications.
RM will be the branch of the technology that has the most direct impact on
people's lives.
Some observers have likened it to a second industrial revolution. That may be
going a little too far, but it's a good long-term bet that nearly all facets of life
will be impacted in some way by RM - and many in ways which may not be
apparent at present.

Advantages and Disadvantages


The fundamental advantages and disadvantages of rapid prototyping carry
over to rapid manufacturing. The benefits of RM must be balanced against its
substantial limitations today. Unless there is an overwhelming need for a
specific advantage that RM provides, the balance most frequently favors a
conventional approach. However, as technical problems on many fronts are
solved, the balance can be expected to tip in favor of RM with greater
frequency.
The driving force to solve these problems comes from the early adopters
whose present applications already possess an overwhelming balance in favor
of additive fabrication. These individuals and companies are providing the
foundation upon which further improvements will be based.
Geometric freedom.
Essentially all additive fabrication technologies provide the ability to fabricate
with unbounded geometric freedom. It's their most important advantage over
subtractive methods and main reason to exist. Geometric freedom comes with
several limitations using today's technology, however. The speed of
fabrication compared to standard manufacturing methods is much slower. By
some estimates, existing mass production methods are 10 to 1,000 times faster
[1]. The finishes and accuracy are also not on a par with conventional
technology. Secondary operations are also required, such as support removal
and hand-finishing. In a production situation, where multiple parts are
fabricated, secondary operations can add up and become time-consuming.

There are also part size limitations at present which are more restrictive than
those of standard methods.
Materials.
Additive fabrication offers the potential to use multiple materials as well as to
control the local geometric meso- and micro-structure of a part. This means
that the functionality of a part can be optimized in ways that are impossible
with previously existing manufacturing methods. Materials can be selected for
their mechanical, thermal, optical or other properties, and then can be
physically deposited in a manner that optimizes or changes those properties
beyond the capability of the intrinsic material itself.
On the other hand, the reality today is that the key word here is "potential." It
will be a long time before the choice of materials available to rapid
manufacturing is even remotely comparable to those available to standard
manufacturing technologies. There are just a few dozen RP/RM materials
commercially available today, spread out over all classes of materials such as
plastics, metals and ceramics. In contrast, plastic selection databases exist that
list a mind-boggling 40,000+ active grades of plastic alone [2]. In addition,
recycling complex materials may be difficult or impossible.
Elimination of tooling.
CAD directly drives all additive fabrication processes, making it theoretically
possible to avoid the use of tooling altogether. In practice, it may often still
not be possible to do that because of process and materials limitations of one
kind or another, but complementary rapid tooling technology might offer a
beneficial compromise. When feasible, however, the complete elimination of
tooling results in enormous savings in time and money. It makes it possible to
fabricate parts and products in small quantities, or using materials and design
parameters that might not otherwise be conceivable.
Lowered costs.
The ability to fabricate products more economically arises from several links
in the RM process chain: One of the largest savings, as mentioned, is doing
away with the need for tooling. Additional savings arise from lowered or zero
inventory requirements, and eventually can be expected to also arise from the
ability to fabricate complete operational assemblies. The latter further lowers
inventory costs and also does away with assembly labor. Of course, the
economic potential described here requires substantial technological
development to fully realize.
The establishment of distributed manufacturing is simplified once tooling and
inventory requirements are done away with. Parts and products can be
fabricated at the point of use and in the exact quantity required. For example,
parts may be manufactured at the location of the final assembly line, or at a
replacement part distribution site, or on a ship at sea or in outer space. It will
only be necessary to inventory the requisite materials rather than many parts
or sub-assemblies, or even the final product itself.

Mass customization.
Taking distributed manufacturing to its logical extreme, one of the major
reasons that some pundits are excited by the possibilities of RM is that it holds
promise to lead to an era of products designed directly by consumers. If it's
possible to economically make as few as a single unit of an item, then it's
hypothesized that there will develop a significant demand for products created
by and for individual consumers. Such products might be expected to satisfy
consumers' needs more precisely than mass-produced goods.
This scenario is predicated at least to some extent by extrapolating on the
many examples of semi-custom designed products available in the
marketplace today. Automobiles, personal computers and houses are all built
with significant customer input. Cell phone covers, watch face designs and
other fashion items over the last several years have also become products that
offer consumers personalized choice. The trend can be expected to continue,
especially for some items, and for certain consumer groups. However, these
are all products that are either based on a limited, but nevertheless large mix
and match menu, or for which functionality is not seriously impacted. The
question remains, will we all be designing our own sneakers, automobiles,
toys and toasters in the not too distant future? The answer is that that's not
likely to happen.

Thermoplastic powder is spread by a roller over the surface of a build cylinder.


The piston in the cylinder moves down one object layer thickness to accommodate the
new layer of powder. The powder delivery system is similar in function to the build
cylinder. Here, a piston moves upward incrementally to supply a measured quantity of
powder for each layer.
A laser beam is then traced over the surface of this tightly compacted powder to
selectively melt and bond it to form a layer of the object. The fabrication chamber is
maintained at a temperature just below the melting point of the powder so that heat

from the laser need only elevate the temperature slightly to cause sintering. This
greatly speeds up the process. The process is repeated until the entire object is
fabricated.
After the object is fully formed, the piston is raised to elevate it. Excess powder is
simply brushed away and final manual finishing may be carried out. No supports are
required with this method since overhangs and undercuts are supported by the solid
powder bed. That's not the complete story, though. It may take a considerable length of
cool-down time before the part can be removed from the machine. Large parts with
thin sections may require as much as two days of cooling time.
SLS offers the key advantage of making functional parts in essentially final materials.
However, the system is mechanically more complex than stereolithography and most
other technologies. A variety of thermoplastic materials such as nylon, glass filled
nylon, and polystyrene are available. Surface finishes and accuracy are not quite as
good as with stereolithography, but material properties can be quite close to those of
the intrinsic materials. The method has also been extended to provide direct
fabrication of metal and ceramic objects and tools.
Since the objects are sintered they are porous. It may be necessary to infiltrate the
part, especially metals, with another material to improve mechanical characteristics.

Laminated Object Manufacturing


A Brief Tutorial
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Next

Profiles of object cross


sections are cut from paper or
other web material using a laser.
The paper is unwound from a feed
roll onto the stack and first bonded
to the previous layer using a heated
roller which melts a plastic coating
on the bottom side of the paper. The
profiles are then traced by an optics
system that is mounted to an X-Y stage.
After cutting of the layer is complete, excess paper is cut away to separate the
layer from the web. Waste paper is wound on a take-up roll. The method is
self-supporting for overhangs and undercuts. Areas of cross sections which are
to be removed in the final object are heavily cross-hatched with the laser to
facilitate removal. It can be time consuming to remove extra material for some
geometries, however.
In general, the finish, accuracy and stability of paper objects are not as good

as for materials used with other RP methods. However, material costs are very
low, and objects have the look and feel of wood and can be worked and
finished in the same manner. This has fostered applications such as patterns
for sand castings. While there are limitations on materials, work has been
done with plastics, composites, ceramics and metals. Some of these materials
are available on a limited commercial basis.
Variations on this method have been developed by many companies and
research groups. For example, Kira's Paper Lamination Technology (PLT)
uses a knife to cut each layer instead of a laser and applies adhesive to bond
layers using the xerographic process. Solidimension of Israel also uses a knife,
but instead bonds layers of plastic film with a solvent. This technology is sold
in the US by 3D Systems as the InVisionTM LD. There are also variations
which seek to increase speed and/or material versatility by cutting the edges
of thick layers diagonally to avoid stair stepping.
The principal US commercial provider of laser-based LOM systems, Helisys,
ceased operation in 2000. However the company's products are still sold and
serviced by a successor organization, Cubic Technologies.

Laser Engineered Net Shaping TM


A Brief Tutorial
Back

Laser Engineered Net ShapingTM


(LENS )* and similar laser
powder forming technologies are
gaining in importance and are in
early stages of commercialization. A
high power laser is used to melt
metal powder supplied coaxially to
the focus of the laser beam through
a deposition head. The laser beam
typically travels through the center
of the head and is focused to a small spot by one or more lenses. The X-Y
table is moved in raster fashion to fabricate each layer of the object. The head
is moved up vertically as each layer is completed. Metal powders are
delivered and distributed around the circumference of the head either by
gravity, or by using a pressurized carrier gas. An inert shroud gas is often used
to shield the melt pool from atmospheric oxygen for better control of
properties, and to promote layer to layer adhesion by providing better surface
wetting.
A variety of materials can be used such as stainless steel, Inconel, copper,

aluminum etc. Of particular interest are reactive materials such as titanium.


Materials composition can be changed dynamically and continuously, leading
to objects with properties that might be mutually exclusive using classical
fabrication methods.
The strength of the technology lies in the ability to fabricate fully-dense metal
parts with good metallurgical properties at reasonable speeds. Objects
fabricated are near net shape, but generally will require finish machining.
They have good grain structure, and have properties similar to, or even better
than the intrinsic materials. Selective laser sintering is at present the only
other commercialized RP process that can produce metal parts directly.
However, laser powder forming methods have fewer material limitations than
SLS, don't require secondary firing operations as some of those processes do,
and can also be used to repair parts as well as fabricate them.

Laser Engineered Net Shaping TM


Laser Engineered Net ShapingTM [LENS ]* and other laser powder forming
technologies are gaining in importance and in early stages of commercialization.
The strength of these technologies lie in the ability to fabricate fully-dense metal parts
with good metallurgical properties at reasonable speeds. The work was initiated at
several government and university laboratories, both in the US and in Europe, and
several variations on the technique have been explored. The approaches are also
sometimes referred to by the general term, laser fusing. Fig. 8 shows the approach
adopted by Sandia National Labs and being commercialized by Optomec Design
Corp. Several other companies are commercializing similar processes.

A high power laser is used to melt metal powder supplied coaxially to the focus of the
laser beam through a deposition head (C). The laser beam typically travels through the
center of the head and is focused to a small spot by one or more lenses (B). The X-Y
table (D) is moved in raster fashion to fabricate each layer of the object. Typically the
head is moved up vertically as each layer is completed. The laser beam may be
delivered to the work by any convenient means. A simple right angle mirror (E) is
shown, but fiber optics could also be used. Metal powders (A) are delivered and
distributed around the circumference of the head either by gravity, or by using an
inert, pressurized carrier gas (G). Even in cases where its not required for feeding, an
inert shroud gas (F) is typically used to shield the melt pool from atmospheric oxygen
for better control of properties, and to promote layer to layer adhesion by providing
better surface wetting.
A variety of materials can be used such as stainless steel, Inconel, copper, aluminum
etc. Of particular interest are reactive materials such as titanium. Most systems use
powder feedstocks, but there has also been work done with material provided as fine
wires. In this case the material is fed off-axis to the beam. Materials composition can
be changed dynamically and continuously, leading to objects with properties that
might be mutually exclusive using classical fabrication methods.
The building area is usually contained within a chamber both to isolate the process
from the ambient surroundings and to shield the operators from possible exposure to
fine powders and the laser beam. The laser power used varies greatly, from a few
hundred watts to 20KW or more, depending on the particular material, feed-rate and
other parameters.

Objects fabricated are near net shape, but generally will require finish machining.
They are fully-dense with good grain structure, and have properties similar to, or even
better than the intrinsic materials. LENS has fewer material limitations than SLS,
doesn't require secondary firing operations as some of those processes do, and can
also be used to repair parts as well as fabricate them.
Initial applications are concentrated on the fabrication and repair of injection molding
tools and the fabrication of large titanium and other exotic metal parts for aerospace
applications. This emphasis is partly due to the fact that support structures for
overhanging sections generated by the technology are fully dense and hard to remove.
These applications don't need to address that problem. Work is ongoing to find a more
convenient means of generating supports.

Stereolithography
The implementation shown in Fig. 1 is used by 3D Systems and some foreign
manufacturers. A moveable table, or elevator (A), initially is placed at a position just
below the surface of a vat (B) filled with liquid photopolymer resin (C). This material
has the property that when light of the correct color strikes it, it turns from a liquid to a
solid. The most common photopolymer materials used require an ultraviolet light, but
resins that work with visible light are also utilized. The system is sealed to prevent the
escape of fumes from the resin.
A laser beam is moved over the surface of the liquid photopolymer to trace the
geometry of the cross-section of the object. This causes the liquid to harden in areas
where the laser strikes. The laser beam is moved in the X-Y directions by a scanner
system (D). These are fast and highly controllable motors which drive mirrors and are
guided by information from the CAD data.
The exact pattern that the laser traces is a combination of the information contained in
the CAD system that describes the geometry of the object, and information from the
rapid prototyping application software that optimizes the faithfulness of the fabricated
object. Of course, application software for every method of rapid prototyping modifies
the CAD data in one way or another to provide for operation of the machinery and to
compensate for shortcomings.

After the layer is completely traced and for the most part hardened by the laser beam,
the table is lowered into the vat a distance equal to the thickness of a layer. The resin
is generally quite viscous, however. To speed this process of recoating, early
stereolithography systems drew a knife edge (E) over the surface to smooth it. More
recently pump-driven recoating systems have been utilized. The tracing and recoating
steps are repeated until the object is completely fabricated and sits on the table within
the vat.
Some geometries of objects have overhangs or undercuts. These must be supported
during the fabrication process. The support structures are either manually or
automatically designed.
Upon completion of the fabrication process, the object is elevated from the vat and
allowed to drain. Excess resin is swabbed manually from the surfaces. The object is
often given a final cure by bathing it in intense light in a box resembling an oven
called a Post-Curing Apparatus (PCA). Some resins and types of stereolithography
equipment don't require this operation, however.
After final cure, supports are cut off the object and surfaces are sanded or otherwise
finished.
Stereolithography generally is considered to provide the greatest accuracy and best
surface finish of any rapid prototyping technology. Work continues to provide
materials that have wider and more directly useable mechanical properties. Recently,
inkjet technology has been extended to operation with photopolymers resulting in
systems that have both fast operation and good accuracy. See the section on inkjets.

Laminated Object Manufacturing


Profiles of object cross sections are cut from paper using a CO2 laser as shown in
Fig. 3. The paper is unwound from a feed roll (A) onto the stack and bonded to the
previous layer using a heated roller (B). The roller melts a plastic coating on the
bottom side of the paper to create the bond. The profiles are traced by an optics
system that is mounted to an X-Y stage (C). The process generates considerable
smoke. Either a chimney or a charcoal filtration system is required (E) and the build
chamber must be sealed.

After cutting the geometric features of a layer is completed, the excess paper is cut
away to separate the layer from the web. The extra paper of the web is wound on a
take-up roll (D). The method is self-supporting for overhangs and undercuts. Areas of
cross sections which are to be removed in the final object are heavily cross-hatched
with the laser to facilitate removal. It can be time consuming to remove extra material
for some geometries.
The finish and accuracy are not as good as with some methods, however objects have
the look and feel of wood and can be worked and finished in the same manner.

Several companies provide variations of LOM technologies: For example, Kira's


Paper Lamination Technology (PLT) uses a knife to cut each layer instead of a laser
and applies adhesive to bond layers using the xerographic process. Solidimension of
Israel also uses a knife, but instead bonds layers of plastic film with a solvent. This
technology is sold in the US by 3D Systems as the InVisionTM LD. Other variations
include Thick Layer Lamination from Stratoconception of France, Precision
Stratiform Machining from Ford Research, and Adaptive-Layer Lamination
developed by Landfoam Topographics. These are hybrids of additive and subtractive
CNC technologies which seek to increase speed and material versatility by cutting the
edges of thick layers to avoid stair stepping.
The principal US commercial provider of laser-based LOM systems, Helisys, ceased
operation in 2000. However the company's products are still sold and serviced by a
successor organization, Cubic Technologies.

Selective Laser Sintering


The process is somewhat similar to stereolithography in principle as can be seen
from Fig. 2. In this case, however, a laser beam is traced over the surface of a tightly
compacted powder made of thermoplastic material (A). The powder is spread by a
roller (B) over the surface of a build cylinder (C). A piston (D) moves down one object
layer thickness to accommodate the layer of powder.
The powder supply system (E) is similar in function to the build cylinder. It also
comprises a cylinder and piston. In this case the piston moves upward incrementally to
supply powder for the process.
Heat from the laser melts the powder where it strikes under guidance of the scanner
system (F). The CO2 laser used provides a concentrated infrared heating beam. The
entire fabrication chamber is sealed and maintained at a temperature just below the
melting point of the plastic powder. Thus, heat from the laser need only elevate the
temperature slightly to cause sintering, greatly speeding the process. A nitrogen
atmosphere is also maintained in the fabrication chamber which prevents the
possibility of explosion in the handling of large quantities of powder.

After the object is fully formed, the piston is raised to elevate the object. Excess
powder is simply brushed away and final manual finishing may be carried out. Thats
not the complete story, though. It may take a considerable time before the part cools
down enough to be removed from the machine. Large parts with thin sections may
require as much as two days of cooling time.
No supports are required with this method since overhangs and undercuts are
supported by the solid powder bed. This saves some finishing time compared to
stereolithography. However, surface finishes are not as good and this may increase the
time. No final curing is required as in stereolithography, but since the objects are
sintered they are porous. Depending on the application, it may be necessary to
infiltrate the object with another material to improve mechanical characteristics.
Much progress has been made over the years in improving surface finish and porosity.
The method has also been extended to provide direct fabrication of metal and ceramic
objects and tools.

Solid Ground Curing


Solid Ground Curing was developed and sold by Cubital Ltd. of Israel. While the
method offered good accuracy and a very high fabrication rate, it suffered from high
acquisition and operating costs due to system complexity. This led to poor market
acceptance. While the company no longer exists and its intellectual property has been
acquired by Objet Geometries, Ltd., it's still an interesting example of the many

technologies other than stereolithography that utilize photopolymer materials. Also


notable is that a similar electrostaticaly-based layer exposure scheme is used by Speed
Part AB (Sweden) in its powder-based technology being commercialized in 2003.
The early versions of the Cubital system weighed several tons and required a sealed
room. Size was made more manageable and the system sealed to prevent exposure to
photopolymers, but it was still very large. (Please see the discussion on
stereolithography for a description of photopolymers.)

Instead of using a laser to expose and harden photopolymer element by element


within a layer as is done in stereolithography, SGC uses a mask to expose the entire
object layer at once with a burst of intense UV light. The method of generating the
masks is based on electrophotography (xerography).
This is a two cycle process having a mask generation cycle and a layer fabrication
cycle. It takes about 2 minutes to complete all operations to make a layer:
1. First the object under construction (A) is given a coating of
photopolymer resin as it passes the resin applicator station (B) on its
way to the exposure cell (C).
2. A mask is generated by electrostatically transferring toner in the
required object cross sectional image pattern to a glass plate (D) An
electron gun writes a charge pattern on the plate which is developed
with toner. The glass plate then moves to the exposure cell where it is
positioned above the object under construction.

3. A shutter is opened allowing the exposure light to pass through the


mask and quickly cure the photopolymer layer in the required pattern.
Because the light is so intense the layer is fully cured and no secondary
curing operation is necessary as is the case with stereolithography.
4. The mask and object under fabrication then part company. The glass
mask is cleaned of toner and discharged. A new mask is
electrophotographically generated on the plate to repeat the cycle.
5. The object moves to the aerodynamic wiper (E) where any resin that
wasn't hardened is vacuumed off and discarded.
6. It then passes under a wax applicator (F) where the voids created by
the removal of the unhardened resin are filled with wax. The wax is
hardened by moving the object to the cooling station (G) where a cold
plate is pressed against it.
7. The final step involves running the object under the milling head
(H). Both the wax and photopolymer are milled to a uniform thickness
and the cycle is repeated until the object is completely formed within a
wax matrix.
Secondary operations are required to remove the wax. It can either be melted away or
dissolved using a dish-washing-like machine. The object is then sanded or otherwise
finished as is done in stereolithography. The wax matrix makes it unnecessary to
generate extra support structures for overhangs or undercuts. This, and the large
volume capacity of the system, also makes it easy to nest many different objects
within the build volume for high throughput.

Fused Deposition Modeling


FDM is the second most widely used rapid prototyping
technology, after stereolithography. A plastic filament,
approximately 1/16 inch in diameter, is unwound from a
coil (A) and supplies material to an extrusion nozzle (B).
Some configurations of the machinery have used plastic

RedEye
RPM has the
world's
largest

pellets fed from a hopper rather than a filament. The


nozzle is heated to melt the plastic and has a mechanism
which allows the flow of the melted plastic to be
controlled. The nozzle is mounted to a mechanical stage
(C) which can be moved in horizontal and vertical
directions.

capacity for
Rapid
Prototyping.
75+ machines, 24/7,
you'll get your parts
fast! Eliminate tooling
with RM. A division of
Stratasys using FDM
technology.

As the nozzle is moved over the table (D) in the required


geometry, it deposits a thin bead of extruded plastic to
form each layer. The plastic hardens immediately after
being squirted from the nozzle and bonds to the layer
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below. The entire system is contained within an oven
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chamber which is held at a temperature just below the
melting point of the plastic. Thus, only a small amount of
additional thermal energy needs to be supplied by the
extrusion nozzle to cause the plastic to melt. This provides
much better control of the process.

Support structures must be designed and fabricated for any overhanging geometries
and are later removed in secondary operations. Several materials are available for the
process including a nylon-like polymer and both machinable and investment casting
waxes. The introduction of ABS plastic material led to much greater commercial
acceptance of the method. It provided better layer to layer bonding than previous
materials and consequently much more robust fabricated objects. Also a companion
support material was introduced at that time which was easily removable by simply
breaking it away from the object. Water-soluble support materials have also become
available which can be removed simply by washing them away. The recent
introduction of polycarbonate and poly(phenyl)sulfone modeling materials have
further extended the capabilities of the method in terms of strength and temperature

range. Several other polymer systems as well as ceramic and metallic materials are
under development.
The method is office-friendly and quiet. FDM is fairly fast for small parts on the order
of a few cubic inches, or those that have tall, thin form-factors. It can be very slow for
parts with wide cross sections, however. The finish of parts produced with the method
have been greatly improved over the years, but aren't quite on a par with
stereolithography. The closest competitor to the FDM process is probably three
dimensional printing. However, FDM offers greater strength and a wider range of
materials than at least the implementations of 3DP from Z Corp. which are most
closely comparable.
Stratasys is the only western supplier. Similar technology has also been under
development in China.

Inkjets
Thermal Phase Change Inkjets
This technology has also in the past been called ballistic particle manufacturing
(BPM). Fig. 6 shows Solidscape, Inc.'s implementation. It uses a single jet each for
build and support materials. All phase change inkjet technologies rely on squirting a
build material in a liquid or melted state which cools or otherwise hardens to form a
solid on impact. 3D Systems also produces an inkjet machine, called the ThermoJet
ModelerTM which utilizes several hundred nozzles. 3D's name for their inkjet
technology is MultiJet ModelingTM.

The Solidscape machine uses plastic object and wax and support materials which are
held in a melted liquid state at elevated temperature in reservoirs (A). The liquids are
fed to individual jetting heads (B) through thermally insulated tubing. The jetting
heads squirt tiny droplets of the materials as they are moved side to side in the
required geometry to form the layer of the object. The heads are controlled and only
place droplets where they are required to. The materials harden by rapidly dropping in
temperature as they are deposited.
After an entire layer of the object is formed by jetting, a milling head (C) is passed
over the layer to make it a uniform thickness. Particles are vacuumed away as the
milling head cuts and are captured in a filter (D).
The operation of the nozzles is checked after a layer has been fabricated by depositing
a line of each material on a narrow strip of paper and reading the result optically (E).
If all is well, the elevator table (F) is moved down a layer thickness and the next layer
is begun. If a clog is detected, a jetting head cleaning cycle is carried out. If the clog is
cleared, the problem layers are milled off and then repeated.
After the object is completed, the wax support material is either melted or dissolved
away. The Solidscape system is capable of producing fine finishes, but to do so results
in slow operation. Thus, there is a tradeoff between fabrication time and the amount
of hand finishing required.
The 3D Systems ThermoJet is much faster since it simultaneously deposits materials
from hundreds of jets, but it's also somewhat less accurate. This machine uses fine,
hair-like structures made of the modeling material itself to support overhangs and
undercuts. To remove the supports, these structures are simply brushed away
manually after the part is fabricated.

Three Dimensional Printing


The system was developed at MIT and is shown
RedEye
schematically in Fig. 7. The method is very reminiscent of
RPM has the
selective laser sintering, except that the laser is replaced
world's
by an inkjet head. The multi-channel jetting head (A)
largest
deposits a liquid adhesive compound onto the top layer of
capacity for
a bed of powder object material (B). The particles of the
Rapid
powder become bonded in the areas where the adhesive is
Prototyping.
deposited.
75+ machines, 24/7,
you'll get your parts
Once a layer is completed the piston (C) moves down by
fast! Eliminate tooling
the thickness of a layer. As in selective laser sintering, the with RM. A division of
powder supply system (E) is similar in function to the
Stratasys.
build cylinder In this case the piston moves upward
incrementally to supply powder for the process and the
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roller (D) spreads and compresses the powder on the top
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of the build cylinder. The process is repeated until the

entire object is completed within the powder bed.

After completion the object is elevated and the extra powder brushed away leaving a
"green" object. Parts must usually be infiltrated with a hardener before they can be
handled without much risk of damage.
The three dimensional printing process has been licensed to several companies:
Soligen is using it to make investment castings from ceramic powders; Therics for
manufacture of controlled-dosage pharmaceuticals and in tissue engineering
applications; ProMetal for direct metal tooling, etc. Several additional companies
have either optioned or licensed the technology for applications ranging from
filtration to figurines. Z Corp. is the only licensee that addresses the RP market
directly, however. They use the process to create conceptual models out of starch,
plaster and other types of powders. The company introduced a color-capable system
in 2000, and greatly improved that technology in 2004 with the introduction of a 24bit color system.