Rapid Hype

Praising the merits and promises of Rapid Prototyping in 3-D Printing's Great Leap Forward, Wired gives me a 15-year journey backward in time:

The granddaddy of the RP family is stereolithography. The technique was commercialized in 1988. It uses a vat of photosensitive liquid polymer and a laser beam to trace out each layer, which drops into the vat so the next layer can be traced.

The youngest addition to the layered manufacturing family is 3-D printing, which means exactly what it says: One printer head spits out a fine powder, while another spits out a bonding agent, creating one layer. The model bed drops one layer, and the heads pass over again.

I started to work on stereolithography in 1987, doing research, one year before getting my engineer diploma. I spent some 9 years in that field. I put my hands on one of the first 3-D printers in 1991. Over more than a decade, I've seen strikingly similar stories on how revolutionary those 3-D printers are, how cheap they will become and how fast they will spread once they get mainstream, tomorrow morning that is. I quite possibly might have missed the big news, but to me this field hasn't done any significant move in the last 10 years and that sort of appliance is nowhere in sight.

What this article, like many others before, doesn't tell you is that the real breakthrough about rapid prototyping in the past 15 years has been virtual prototyping, i.e. expanding the CAD software abilities from design to prototyping in allowing for more and more complex computer simulations not just on the look but also the cinematic, resistance, behavior of new products. What the industry has always been looking for is to reduce price and time to market of products, not prototypes.

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