Cutting edge

June 23, 2000

Imagine choosing a shoe style on the net, sending your digital foot and waiting for delivery - welcome to rapid manufacturing.

Within the next ten years rapid manufacturing will largely replace conventional manufacturing processes and in 20 years the process from design through to retail could have been revolutionised.

Consider the way shoes are produced. Shoe lasts are made from digital computer files by craftsmen. The shoes are prototyped and then manufactured by conventional methods. The application of rapid manufacturing processes would initially be applied to making the shoe lasts. Eventually the last itself could be replaced by a "digitalised last" from which the shoes could be built direct. There would be no need to have a stock of shoes and guess the range of sizes most likely to be needed as each pair of shoes could be made to measure. Shops would effectively become the place of manufacture and sales and there would be the opportunity for shoes to be customised on a mass scale. You may not even need to visit a shop at all as the shoe designs could be available on the internet and the customer could send their "digital foot" measurements and choice of design and have the shoes sent to them.

Rapid manufacturing is the term that covers the application of technology to the manufacturing process from the initial concept through product development and into manufacturing. Typically, the technology used can make objects by building up layers of material. A laser guided by digital computer files will solidify powdered metal or liquid plastic to build up a solid shape. Using this method prototypes made from metal or plastic can be built from 3D computer design to a 3D physical object in hours instead of days or weeks. As well as speed of production, rapid manufacturing techniques offer greater flexibility. Currently a designer has to bear in mind what is technically possible. There are fewer technical limitations with the new technology. If it can be created with computer-aided design then it can be made using future rapid manufacturing techniques.

Early applications of the technology are likely to be in goods with a high degree of customisation or variability that people are prepared to pay for, such as ski shoes or high-performance/high-cost cars. Moving from using rapid technology for prototyping to applying it to the whole manufacturing process will involve investment in the development and installation of new equipment and training for engineers.

The Rapid Manufacturing Group at De Montfort University has established a large consortium of European companies to train engineers, run technology transfer projects and conduct joint research. Later this year, a masters degree in rapid product development will be launched and aimed at engineers in industry.

The consortium includes ABB Alstom Power, DaimlerChrysler, Electrolux Outdoor Products, Ericsson, Lotus, Martin-Baker Aircraft, Perkins Engines, Siemens, TWR and Volvo.

We are also working on Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and EU-funded research projects with academic and industrial partners to gather information about investigating rapid manufacturing.

Of the four main areas of rapid manufacturing - materials, manufacturing processes and systems, design and business issues - our group is very active in the central area of product design and manufacturing process. We are aiming to carry out research and training that will contribute to the move from rapid prototyping to rapid production.

Phill Dickens is professor and head of the rapid manufacturing research group at De Montfort University.

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