The Rapid Prototyping and Manufacturing Institute (RPMI) has endeavored and succeeded in realizing its vision-ensuring that layer-based, additive fabrication technologies are recognized as production manufacturing technologies. Furthermore, members of the RPMI have made it their mission to develop and deploy rapid prototyping (RP) and manufacturing technologies and applications in the following areas:
- Rapid tooling, inspection and machining applications
- Design for additive fabrication
- Stereolithography (SL)
- Laser Chemical Vapor Deposition (LCVD)
The Institute-comprised of Georgia Tech faculty and students, member companies from industry and a National Science Foundation (NSF) sponsorship (see NSF Table at the end of this article)-the unique ability to serve each of its constituents as well as those in industry and academia outside of the group. According to RPMI Director and Georgia Tech faculty member David Rosen, the key to the RPMI's success is solid communication between its members. "Our open sharing of ideas, time and capital is the foundation upon which the results of our work have grown," he stresses.
The RPMI's eight member companies (see RPMI Member Companies Sidebar) serve as representatives for all manufacturers with an interest in RP&M-providing the Institute with the "guidance that keeps our resources focused on the key issues, expertise to the execution of our projects and much of the capital needed to maintain our progress," states Rosen.
One of the fringe benefits of belonging to RPMI (see Getting Involved Table at the end of this article) is the access to its students. "The members are constantly working with and evaluating the students-so if they have a position open in their company, they have an inside track to the best educated students in the RP area," Rosen explains. "It's not a formal placement program, but it is a member benefit that has turned out very well for some companies."
The NSF and DARPA (U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) have played a crucial role in establishing and supporting the RPMI, Rosen notes. The RPMI was created in response to a DARPA grant to support manufacturing education in 1995. Since then, the RPMI has been sustained by additional NSF and DARPA funding, most notably the Rapid Tooling Testbed project, which was recently completed. "That project-designed to develop the technology and the know-how to remove the bottleneck of tooling design and fabrication in the design and manufacture of the molded components-has led us in new and exciting directions," he says. "One of these directions is web-based technologies that enable product requirements to be communicated to potential manufacturers, capturing far more information than STL files or CAD models contain."
The Georgia Tech Administration supports education in the lab. Through its projects, strong sponsored research activities reach out to industry and potential Georgia Tech students to help them to understand and use RP&M techniques. Additionally, it supports the RPMI's mission of developing and deploying RP&M technologies through research, education and service.
The RPMI functions primarily as a research lab, Rosen emphasizes, and is the strongest aspect to the Institute. "We have a group of mostly graduate students that are doing research to support their masters and Ph.D. theses," he comments. "They make very creative use of the technologies. Also, if students are designing something and need prototypes made, they often come to us to get piece parts made in support of their design and CAD projects. However, we do not train all of these students on how to use the machines. They just submit their designs to us and we give them back parts. So we sort of act like an internal service bureau for a lot of the computer and CAD courses on campus."
Several ongoing research projects have contributed to the widespread acceptance of new technologies in the RP&M industry. "Many companies now use RP parts, patterns and tools as part of their everyday product development processes," Rosen states. "As we have progressed, the RPMI is no longer just solving problems, we are now well poised as drivers-helping to identify new applications and making them a reality."
Rosen also points out that RPMI's lab-coupled with the host of other resources available at Georgia Tech-results in opportunities abound for learning. "During their time at the RPMI, many students will attend and speak at conferences, participate in member meetings, and help to organize and host our own national RP&M events-like our Advanced Rapid Prototyping and Manufacturing Symposium held in October 2002," he comments. "While in the RPMI, the students' intellectual capital grows-as do their lists of contacts in industry and academia. The results are extraordinarily valuable engineers, managers and scientists with unusually good employment options."
It is the Georgia Tech faculty members' job to recruit the students for various projects and advise them in their individual activities. "Faculty collaborates with industry representatives for a better understanding of the important issues facing the use and improvement of RP&M technologies," Rosen notes. "We run yearlong or two-year-long projects with the funding provided by our industry members. Graduate students work on these projects as part of their masters or Ph.D. research and are supervised by Georgia Tech faculty. Most of the projects are identified by the industry members. We encourage our members to actively participate in the projects and provide suggestions for research activities, industry relevant problems, technologies and methods that could solve the problems, etc. Students give project status presentations at RPMI meetings (usually three or four per year) so that all industry members can keep up-to-date on their project and progress."
Mahesh Kotnis, marketing manager of RPMI member company Vantico (East Lansing, MI-a manufacturer of SL photopolymers and related plastic tooling materials-recently proposed projects to study the machinability of two of the company's tooling board materials, and was actively involved in defining, running and evaluating these projects. Similarly, Diana Kalisz, vice president of business development, and Khalid Moussa, director, advanced materials and process, of Valencia, CADbased 3D Systems-a provider of solid imaging products and solutions-suggested a project on SL cure modeling. The 3D Systems' members have actively participated in the project by providing research issues and suggesting experiments.
The RPMI doesn't limit its educational resources to its students. Scores of industry people have taken the Institute's short course offerings and they reap other benefits of the RPMI-such as networking, identifying potential customers, and gaining insight into technologies, materials and methods from a neutral site. Boris Fritz, senior technical specialist engineer for Northrop Grumman Corp. (El Segundo, CA-a global aerospace and defense company-and Vice Chairman of the Rapid Prototyping Association in the U.S., has visited RPMI several times and lectured at past events. "They do impressive work," he notes. "RPMI has been pushing cutting-edge technology for awhile now." Andrew Scott, a research engineer for Marietta, GA-based Lockheed-Martin Aeronautics-a provider of aerospace, defense and technology services-couldn't agree more. "I am always impressed by the quality of work and breadth of knowledge they access," he affirms.
"Our technical achievements have rippled through the industry," Rosen acknowledges. "At least four of our technologies have become commercialized: powder injection molding of ceramics using SL molds, embedded components in SL parts, truss structure design and CAD software, and inspection and metrology software. And, our students have become key employees in design and manufacturing organizations for companies like Align Technology, 3D Systems, Motorola, Siemens, Lexmark, International Fuel Cells and General Electric. More than 50 RPMI alumni are now working in industry."
Service is a culmination of both education and research at the RPMI as the Institution strives to make RP&M a mainstream technology. "We want to help the industry grow to become a rapid manufacturing industry, not just RP," Rosen says. "In other words, we want to help develop these technologies so that they can be used for production work, not just making throwaway prototypes. Our main role is to help people understand how to take advantage of the unique capabilities of RP technologies."
Raising public awareness is no easy task. Over the past two years, members of the RPMI have visited with and introduced more than 25 Georgia industry representatives to the RPMI through lab tours, recruitment contacts and the Symposium. Presentations have been given at more than seven different conferences-including the SME RPA Conference, ASME Design Technical Conferences and Solid Freeform Fabrication Symposium.
Challenges notwithstanding, Rosen and the members of the RPMI are excited-and confident-that research and development that is underway will make for a groundbreaking future in the RP&M industry. According to Rosen, future goals include the following:
- Engage industry in the education of future engineers, designers, scientists and managers.
- Align the students' education more closely with the true needs of their future employers.
- Enhance the educational experience of Georgia Tech's students by exposing them to state-of-the-art technologies in an interdisciplinary instructional laboratory. Currently, the lab consists of SLA, measurement and laser digitizing equipment.
- Promote current RP&M technologies by developing, refining, demonstrating and communicating creative case studies of these technologies.
- Develop new methods in areas related to RP&M-such as rapid tooling, rapid fixturing, rapid casting and flexible tooling. Develop necessary integration between RP&M technologies and design, manufacturing and business functions.
- Continually change and grow to meet the needs of industry as communicated through the members.
- Increase the competitiveness of manufacturers in Georgia, and throughout the Southeast, by helping them to fully exploit RP&M technologies.
"The RPMI exists to meet the needs of education and demonstration in rapid prototyping and manufacturing," he summarizes. "Its success is defined by the willingness of its private sector members to continue their participation, and the willingness of Georgia Tech faculty and students to continue their involvement. By working together, we have achieved great success."
|The National Science Foundation (NSF)|
|An independent agency of the U.S. Government, the NSF consists of the National Science Board of 24 part-time members and a Director (who also serves as ex officio National Science Board member)-each appointed by the President with the advice and consent of the U.S. Senate. Other senior officials include a Deputy Director who is appointed by the President with the advice and consent of the U.S. Senate, and eight Assistant Directors.
Its mission is to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; and to secure the national defense. It engages in the following activities:
|There are three ways to participate in the RPMI: as a member, affiliate or simply by conducting business with the Institute.
Every business has three types of risk: capital risk, time risk and intellectual risk. RPMI members attenuate these risks by using its expertise, hands-on experience and state-of-the-art infrastructure. This opportunity is available to any company permitted to do business in the U.S.