The inkjet opportunity in rapid prototyping

The world is speeding up—no doubt about it—and a faster world requires faster manufacturing, which means rapid prototyping is necessary to get products to market more quickly. Past methods for rapid prototyping included casting, molding, and stamping. In the 1980s, new technologies, such as lamination and stereo lithography, appeared to make the rapid prototyping process cheaper, easier, and quicker. Since the 1980s, other new technologies have appeared, including inkjet. I.T. Strategies projects that vendors’ revenues from inkjet systems, consumables, and services used for rapid prototyping will grow from $78 million in 2007 to $148 million by 2012.

Rapid prototyping systems across the range of applications—up to and including short-run manufacturing—can eliminate the costs of die and tooling creation. According to Mark Hanley, president of I.T. Strategies, “This is analogous to the elimination of the platemaking process in printing with digital print, except that the economies involved in manufacturing are on a greater scale where, for example, the cost of a relatively small part for an electronics system might be $80,000, not including the delays involved in waiting for the creation of the die. Our forecasts in this area are conservative and assume an increasing share of inkjet sales against competing technologies. They also assume no major new market breakthrough, no major new vendors, and an organic slackening of growth over time.” (I.T. Strategies Report)

If you’re new to rapid prototyping, don’t worry—we’ll start with a review of how it works, and then look at a few systems currently on the market.

How it Works

  • Software “slices” a CAD (computer-aided design) file into thousands of thin layers
  • Physical model is built one layer at a time
  • Ink-jet print heads deposit binder into powder to create layers

ZPrinter 310 Monochrome Plus
Z Corporation commercialized its range of devices in the late nineties and has grown rapidly over the last few years into a leader in the rapid prototyping industry. The company’s products are priced very competitively, particularly when you look at the build volumes available and the total running costs (the materials are relatively cheap and reusable). Their machines can also be used very efficiently, and the build chamber can be stacked, which enables the building of more parts than with other systems, particularly at the entry level.

While the 310 plus is branded as a monochrome machine and can’t handle full colour like the Spectrum Z510, it can still jet a single colour binder into the part. This means that if your products have a signature colour or a project-specific requirement that you’d like to replicate easily, it is possible to do so. The 310 Plus comes with a range of pre-mixed coloured variants of the binder fluid—Cyan, Magenta, and Yellow. You also get instructions on how to mix colours with the clear binder and how to mix up the colour you want, so there’s no ordering of new materials for a specific project, wasting build etc. It’s a very elegant solution.

The ZPrinter Full Color 450
This printer makes colour 3D printing accessible to everyone. The lowest priced colour 3D printer available, the ZPrinter 450 outputs brilliant colour models with timesaving automation and an even easier printing process. It is the ideal introduction to colour 3D printing for a wide variety of applications, from product design, production prototypes, and architectural concepts to education, healthcare, and the arts. Companies such as are creating one-eighteenth scale figurines of action characters developed by players of the World of Warcraft multiplayer online game. CAD slices are built one upon the next using processes including heated powders, extruded plastic filaments, and resins precisely cured with lasers. When first offered these action characters to gaming customers, they were overwhelmed by the response. Within 2 months over 100,000 people had signed up to buy a figurine of an action character for $99.95.

Spectrum Z510 Full Color System
This system promises to be the next generation in high-def 3D colour printing. The Spectrum Z510 produces high-definition, full-colour prototypes quickly and affordably. Superior inkjet printing technology creates parts with crisply defined features, enhanced accuracy, and precise colour, so you can print and evaluate physical models of design concepts in their nearly finished state. Rapid 3D printing of high-definition models means you no longer have to wait for prototypes. Its 24-bit colour, 3D printing capability produces colour models that accurately reflect your original design data. Colour models communicate more information than any other type of rapid prototype, providing you with a strategic advantage in product development.

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