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The Benefits of Rapid Prototyping Technologies

Rapid prototyping is being used in just about all industrial sectors, although there are probably more applications in the automotive industry than any other. This is not surprising, however, given the intense global competitive pressures that are being experienced by automotive firms. A number of diverse application examples from different sectors are described in Chapter 2 of the Management Report.

The application at Rockwell Automotive (see Chapter 2, page 38 of the Management Report) is a typical example of what many companies using this new technology are achieving. In Rockwell's case the technology was used to:

  • increase visualisation capability during the early phases of design by using rapid physical models;
  • detect design flaws before the manufacture of tooling;
  • rapidly create tooling to manufacture physical prototypes.

Rockwell claim that this allowed them to reduce by seven months the time taken to develop a prototype engine. They also claimed that cost savings were achieved on the development project.

Time and cost savings

The applications described in Chapter 2 of the Management Report show firms using rapid prototyping technologies to achieve both cost and time savings in the process of new product development. This is to be expected given the high emphasis that is being given in most industries to reducing both the cost of new product development and time to market.

In most cases firms using rapid prototyping have gained time reductions in the production of prototype tooling and parts, which is mostly how these time savings have been specified.

The figures for time reductions on prototyping vary greatly, ranging from 60 to 90%. On the whole this range is likely to be realistic given that the estimation of time savings, when compared to the conventional methods of prototyping, is a fairly straightforward matter.

Little information is provided in the public domain about cost savings. Clearly there is a potential for cost reduction. For example, if mistakes can be identified before commitments are made to expensive tooling, then the costs associated with modifying such tools can be avoided. However, the information on cost reductions should be treated with some caution. The cases where cost reductions are claimed do not provide sufficient details of the basis for the calculations or the assumptions that have been made.

Innovation

Whilst pursuit of time and cost reductions are necessary business objectives, it is evident from studying the application examples in Chapter 2 of the Management Report, that some firms are using rapid prototyping in more innovative ways than others. Included in these innovative applications are:

  • the development of new analysis and testing procedures (see, for example, the Andersen Corp. case, page 46 of the Management Report);
  • manufacture of production tooling (see, for example, the Buddy/L case, page 43 of the Management Report);
  • improving communications across product divisions (see, for example, the Square D Company case, page 42 of the Management Report); and
  • supporting customised manufacturing (see, for example, the Wright Medical Technologies case, page 45 of the Management Report).

Given the high capital costs of some rapid prototyping machines, especially the larger ones, these innovative applications are probably the key to the successful and cost-effective use of the technologies. It may be the case that rapid prototyping will only be seen as financially viable when these wider potential benefits are taken into account.

More information about costs are given in Chapter 4 of the Management Report, as well as in the chapter of the report that deals with business case development.

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