Send Out Your RP/RT Work to Further Compress the Product Development Cycle

Sending out work to an RP/RT service provider can help moldmakers realize the benefits of rapid prototyping and rapid tooling technology.

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Do you want to realize the benefits of rapid/prototyping and rapid/tooling (RP/RT) technology - quicker delivery times and having an actual physical model to work with among them - without spending a lot of money on the equipment? Send your work out to an RP/RT service provider and reap the rewards this technology has to offer! According to Tom Carr, Vice President of Operations for Langhorne, PA-based Paramount Industries, Inc., a product development company and RP/RT service provider, the biggest benefit RP/RT offers a moldmaker is the ability to see the physical part that verifies the mold build data that has been received.

"When you put a physical model in the hands of a moldmaker, we have found that there is anywhere from a 10 to 25 percent build time advantage gained," Carr states. "He then knows that this is, in fact, what he is building and he can then go back to his data and verify that it's exactly what the client wants. Right now everything is electronic data that people are working from and it's more or less like working in the dark until you have a physical model in front of you.

When the moldmaker sees a physical model, his confidence level goes up tremendously. He knows that this is the part the client is looking for and this is the tool that I am building that will produce this part.

"A lot of moldmaking shops are in the transition to 3D data," he continues. "But, they are not there yet. If you take a typical small mold shop out there, it is about 25 to 35 percent versed on 3D data, and the remaining are still dependent on conventional 2D input. That means you have to take 3D data and convert it back to 2D data to generate blueprints so a conventional moldmaker can work with it. RP/RT technology is really an intangible - something you can't measure until you start using it and that's the benefit of using the technology."

Capital expenditure also is a motivating factor in the decision to outsource RP/RT technology. "Most mold shops simply cannot afford to get into this," says Carr. "Their core business is building molds utilizing subtractive fabrication equipment - they start with a big block of steel and they basically whittle it away with conventional milling, EDM and grinding techniques. Rapid prototyping is called additive fabrication because the technology allows you to grow it from nothing more than a 3D database, and that's the big difference between the technologies. In most cases, we have found that the moldmaker can incorporate the building of a rapid prototype in his mold quote to the client."

So Many Choices, So Little Time

There are a number of RP/RT technologies available, so the first step in choosing a service provider is to decide what you want from your rapid prototyping. "There's not one best technology, so you have to ask yourself some questions," Carr comments. "Are you looking for dimensional accuracy, durability, a functional model or aesthetics? You really need to understand and qualify what you are buying. For example, select laser sintering (SLS) technology offers a variety of materials to produce your prototype. For something that requires a better surface finish, you would go with stereolithography (SLA); for dimensional accuracy you might want to select a Sanders Modelmaker, it's good for finely detailed pieces."

Once a specific process is selected, find a provider that will provide the best service possible. "We call it rapid prototyping because we want it to turn around quickly," Carr says. "But also realize if you want it fast you have to pay for it. Most prototype service providers charge a premium for something that turns around in a shorter time. If you can wait a few extra days, you can usually get the prototypes cheaper. A good service bureau will give you this choice, because they will realize savings by incorporating your build with others, but it will usually take a little longer. Whether it's three days or seven days, it's still incredibly fast to have a physical model in your hands in days versus weeks.

"Another thing you want to do is make sure your service provider has the ability to perform the secondary finishing operations, if needed," Carr continues. "There is a tolerance that all RP parts work to, and if you want your parts groomed you'll want to be certain your service provider has in-house knowledge and capabilities to do that grooming for you. If your engineer or CAD person puts a correct file together, it's just a matter of finding out where you can get the best service and the best price."

Unlike outsourcing other steps in the moldmaking process, there is not a great deal of communication between the moldmaker and the service provider if the 3D data is provided correctly, according to Carr. "There is no human intervention - which is both good and bad," he explains. "Once you feed your data into an RP piece of equipment, it's going to grow what it's told to grow. You need to make sure you send a good file to your RP service bureau. The level of competency in generating the CAD or 3D files is the most important thing, because at that point, it's really a no brainer for the service bureau. They take your file, convert it to the correct format (STL) and grow the part. There is no intervention; no one stands in the middle of it - good data in, good parts out. The service provider happens to own a piece of equipment that you don't and he has made the investment to provide you with a service.

"You won't even hear from the provider until the part shows up at your doorstep," he continues. "It's that easy and that simple. Again, the only time there will be communication between the two parties is if your file is not complete and has some loose ends to it. Then, we won't be able to read it in and most service providers are very hesitant about taking a file that is not complete and patching it up themselves because it's your file. We don't want to go in and manipulate your data, so we will send the file back to you and ask you to clean it up."

According to Carr, pricing and turnaround time are the forces driving the RP/RT industry - everything else is equal. "We are selling time," he states. "The outcome from any one of the service providers is probably the same, the differences are most likely negligible. Perhaps you could establish a relationship with a local provider, maybe someone that has given you special pricing. It's not like one person does a better job in RP than another, it's the equipment that is doing it."

It is this sophisticated equipment that can compress your development cycle time, Carr asserts, and as the technology becomes more sophisticated, reductions of "50 percent and better" can be realized. "I think anyone in their own respective business can put their own dollar values on using this technology," he states. "In other words, if you are a moldmaker and all of a sudden you are able to build molds 50 percent quicker, you will be able to decide what that means financially and staffing-wise for your organization."

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