According to EOS, e-manufacturing with such additive prototyping processes as laser-sintering will strongly compete with conventional technologies, such as casting, in the near future. E-manufacturing is one term being used to describe the process of delivering end products, functional parts, and tools directly from CAD data. Laser-sintering systems are important to this movement because they can work with materials that can provide features needed in parts used in the end product.
EOS surveyed attendees to a rapid prototyping trade show held in Germany late last year. When asked whether e-manufacturing was ready for the mass market, 70% of the interviewees answered “yes.” About one-third believe that individual production laser-sintering is already market-ready, while 37% predict the technology will be well established in the market within the next three years. The rest anticipate e-manufacturing will be accepted within five years, with only 4% seeing a lag of ten years.
Mass customization is the driver behind e-manufacturing. Individual series production is viewed as the most important factor for the success of the technology by 28% of the interviewees. 22% thought e-manufacturing will overtake traditional technologies because of shorter product life cycles.
As far as barriers to e-manufacturing, 29% of the interviewees felt that the limited choice of materials was the greatest barrier. Approximately a quarter of the respondents judged the “lack of know-how in the industry” as a hindrance. Another quarter think that lack of awareness about the technology is the main obstacle.
Of the rest, 12% cited “lack of innovative power across companies,” and 11% noted “outdated production structures.”
EOS executives conclude that the majority of interviewees felt that the difficulty is not so much the emerging technology itself, but rather a lack of knowledge and openness in the industry.
One seldom noted potential challenge is traceability. Some industries, such as aerospace, demand that suppliers be able to document every step, every process to prove that the material, process, and part will result in something that meets all engineering specs. Suppliers must be able to trace where the powder was made, how it was sintered, specifications for every layer, and the temperature at every step to guarantee that every part has the same consistency. The ability to do this task will differentiate true e-manufacturing from rapid prototype part making.
As far as the future of production methods, 63% of the interviewees expect to see individual mass production. A little less than one-quarter believe that end customers will have their own mini-factories and produce their own products with rapid manufacturing. About 9% of those asked went so far as to remark that, in 20 years time, manual manufacturing will only take place on the PC.
Based on this information, EOS and other companies are working on the development of new materials. “We are fully aware that material choice is going to be a significant driver for our future business,” said Dr. Hans J. Langer, founder and CEO of EOS.