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Models of Efficiency

The rapid-prototyping industry is changing the way manufacturers create products.

July 13, 1997|NANCY RIVERA BROOKS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

To the list of industries for which Southern California is the undisputed capital, add a new one.

It's not as flashy as movies or as lucrative as bank robberies, and you've probably never heard of it. But the Southland is home to the leading companies in a new and growing field: rapid prototyping.

OK, so there are only a handful of companies in the rapid-prototyping business, but at least two of them are here, designing, making and selling equipment that is radically changing the way manufacturers create their products. Rapid prototyping allows manufacturers to deliver products to consumers that are better designed and cost less, and it helps them do so faster.

Rapid-prototyping systems from companies such as 3D Systems Corp. in Valencia and Helisys Inc. in Torrance can take a three-dimensional computer image and turn it into a model of a consumer product or machine part at a pace that is, well, rapid.

From crafters of toy cars to producers of the full-size versions, from sandal makers to engine designers, the newfound ability to come up with a mock-up in a matter of hours rather than days or weeks has changed the approach to the manufacturing process.

Rapid-prototyping machines have found their way into companies as diverse as General Motors Corp., Mattel Inc. and Cobra Golf. Architect Frank O. Gehry uses rapid prototyping to build miniature versions of his complicated undulating designs.

These systems have helped scientists map earthquake faults and doctors study a patient's pelvic malformation. They can even do before-and-after models for plastic surgeons.

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Here's how it works:

Rapid prototyping starts with a three-dimensional computer-generated design--the latest versions of the sort of computer-aided design and manufacturing systems that designers and engineers have used for years. Add a machine that, depending on the process selected, crafts a prototype out of thin layers of plastic, paper or, perhaps eventually, metal.

"To take a computer model and turn it into a physical model without any carving or machining is incredible," said Terry Wohlers, a Fort Collins, Colo., consultant who tracks the rapid-prototyping industry. "It's almost like magic when you see that part appear."

Down the road, rapid-prototyping proponents envision a kind of desktop manufacturing in which anything that can be created in a computer can be transformed into solid reality, at the whim of the computer operator, with the same ease as printing a document. Already, companies are using rapid-prototyping machines to fax 3-D objects.

"It's a new way of doing things," said Geoff Smith-Moritz, editor of the San Diego-based Rapid Prototyping Report, a monthly newsletter about the industry. "Most manufacturers are using it to some extent or are starting to experiment with it."

Cobra Golf is a believer.

To fashion a new club in the olden days, pre-1996, Cobra would employ a toolmaker or artisan who would take the musings of designers and painstakingly cast a few brass prototypes, much in the way fine jewelry is created. It took a lot of time and cost a lot of money. Small design changes were difficult to make.

But for its King Cobra II line of irons, which were introduced last year, the Carlsbad, Calif., company whipped out 90 test versions using a rapid-prototyping machine from Helisys that sells for $92,000.

"The machine has more than paid for itself," said Chris Best, senior design engineer with Cobra Golf. "It assured us that the design we went to market with not only worked well, but it looked good too." The resulting product is used by professional golfers Hale Irwin, Jim McGovern and John Schroeder, among others.

The rapid-prototyping industry, which barely existed five years ago, is projected to exceed $1 billion in revenue by 1999, Wohlers said. "On the other hand, I heard . . . that $2.3 billion worth of bagels were sold last year, so I guess $1 billion isn't all that big," he joked.

A rapid-prototyping machine is not an investment undertaken lightly: Each one costs between $50,000 and $500,000.

Companies must decide if the ability to make a prototype quickly for marketing or manufacturing purposes is really worthwhile, Smith-Moritz said.

"It's a step in the design and manufacturing process that people didn't know they needed, and so maybe they don't need it," he said.

But companies have shaved tens of thousands of dollars off the cost of developing products through the use of such machines, and that gives them an edge over lower-tech competitors, he said.

"It shortens the production cycle, and shortening the time to get to market is really key," Smith-Moritz said. "Even if they don't save any money in the production, the fact that they get to market a month earlier has a tremendous economic impact."

Said Wohlers: "We're seeing companies buying a third or fourth and sometimes even an eighth or 10th machine, so it must be paying off for them."

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