Rapid Tooling Technology: A New Competitor

Many of you are involved in machining of tooling, such as molds and dies. At the urging of your customers, you have probably reduced your leadtimes and tried to contain costs for manufacturing this tooling.

Many of you are involved in machining of tooling, such as molds and dies. At the urging of your customers, you have probably reduced your leadtimes and tried to contain costs for manufacturing this tooling. In general, those of you who manufacture tooling have come a long way in providing good service to your customers. That is the good news. The bad news is you are now faced with a new competitor in the tool and die fabrication market. This competitor is not a manufacturer that has found a better machine to produce complex molds and dies, nor is it an offshore company that pays low wages to talented toolmakers and machinists. This competitor is technology, or more specifically, a number of different technologies collectively known as rapid tooling. As you read this column today, companies are taking advantage of rapid tooling technologies to produce economical, yet functional molds and dies in as little as one week.

I became aware of just how far rapid tooling technologies had come during last year's Autofact Conference in Detroit. Companies spoke of how they had drastically reduced the launch time for new products through the use of rapid tooling technologies. Some companies discussed how they had incorporated rapid tooling technologies into their "paperless" and "blueprintless" systems to streamline the entire tooling procurement process. The message was clear: Tooling delivery schedules of 10, 12, 16 and even 26 weeks are becoming a thing of the past.

For some time, companies have used clever techniques to produce prototype tooling. However, prototype tooling was never intended to last, often being produced to make one or two sample parts to aid in the design evaluation process. Today, however, many of the same techniques used to produce prototype tooling have been enhanced to allow the fabrication of hard, long lasting tooling.

I learned more about the advances taking place in rapid tooling at a seminar I recently organized at the Center for Manufacturing Systems. Speakers at this seminar spoke of the latest rapid tooling technology advances, such as:

  • Composite materials are being used as an alternative to metal tooling. Such composites can produce molds that run thousands of simple parts, or hundreds of complex parts. A key advantage to composite tooling is that it can be finished quickly and economically. In fact, a composite mold can be completed in a few days and cost less than $3,000.
  • 3D Systems Inc., Valencia, California, offers a rapid tooling fabrication process known as AIM. The AIM process starts with a solid model file to create Stereo-lithography (SLA) prototype parts that serve as key mold components. The AIM system produces molds that are extremely precise (tolerances of ±0.002), can handle all types of production materials, and can be built to run parts in one week.
  • DTM Corporation, Austin, Texas, uses selective laser sintering prototypes in its RapidTool process to produce molds and dies comparable in strength to those made from P20 tool steel. In the RapidTool process, tooling components are made from metal powder coated with a thermoplastic binder. DTM will be releasing a new metal powder base material that will allow long lasting, hard tooling to be made in three days.
  • CEMCON Corporation, Baltimore, Maryland, has developed a process to deliver net shaped tooling made from nickel ceramic composite (NCC) material. The process starts with an electronic file of the finished part and develops a model of the tool that will be used to make the part. The NCC process produces high strength tooling that requires little or no finish machining.

Rapid tooling technologies offer viable methods for producing durable tooling for industry. The companies that have developed today's rapid tooling technologies are already at work on next generation processes.

Those of you producing hard tooling in traditional ways should learn all you can about rapid tooling technologies. Perhaps there are ways to incorporate some of these technologies into your "bag of tricks" so you can offer better service to your customers. It is certain that in these days of shrinking leadtimes, the challenge to provide durable tooling faster and cheaper will increase. Rapid tooling technologies may be just what manufacturers need to meet this challenge and gain another competitive edge.