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MOLDMAKING: Additive manufacturing gets standardized (But does it matter?)

It's been called rapid technology, rapid prototyping, rapid tooling, and layered manufacturing, but--by what...


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June 20, 2010 by Canadian Plastics

Rapid tooling has long been used to communicate complex mold designs quickly. (Photo courtesy of Bohler Uddeholm Canada)
Rapid tooling has long been used to communicate complex mold designs quickly. (Photo courtesy of Bohler Uddeholm Canada)

It’s been called rapid technology, rapid prototyping, rapid tooling, and layered manufacturing, but–by whatever name–the long debate over what the process involves is about to be clarified.

Through a collaborative effort between the Society of Manufacturing Engineers (SME) and standards organization ASTM International, rapid tooling now has a universal name– “additive manufacturing”– and a universal language.

The move is an effort to eliminate confusion among moldmakers and their customers over terminology, design, testing methods, materials and processing differences. In addition to coining the additive manufacturing phrase, 25 terms have been standardized. The result is the publication, “Standard Terminology for Additive Manufacturing Technologies,” now available for purchase online.

CLARIFICATION = CONSISTANCY (MAYBE)

“In the past, rapid prototyping has meant different things to different manufacturers. It meant quick prototyping to one and layered manufacturing to another,” said Brent Stucker, PhD, a member of SME’s Rapid Technologies and Additive Manufacturing (RTAM) Community and an associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Utah State University. The new terminology “will help clarify communications,” Stucker continued, especially in industries like medical manufacturing and aerospace where consistency is a must.

In addition to fixing the terminology, the advisory panel formed by SME and ASTM to implement the name change–called Committee F42–will also develop other key standards. “Test methods will more than likely be our next effort, but additive manufacturing industry design, materials, and processes are also in the works and will be developed in parallel,” said Stucker. “The new standards will allow manufacturers to compare and contrast the performance of different additive processes and enable researchers and process developers to provide repeatable results.”

WHAT’S IN A NAME?

Without taking anything away from Committee F42’s obvious hard work and good intentions, here’s a question, though: how many in the moldmaking community will care? “On paper, the change is a good idea, because ‘rapid prototyping’ was too big a descriptor, and allowed shops that weren’t true rapid toolers to claim that they were,” said Todd Grimm, a rapid tooling veteran and president of Edgewood, Ky.-based consulting firm T.A. Grimm & Associates. “In reality, however, I don’t think either the moldmaking industry at large or their customers will care about something as rudimentary as a name change, or even a clarification of standards.”

It’s a statement echoed by some of the moldmakers themselves. “Changing the name from rapid tooling to additive manufacturing doesn’t really matter to us,” said Andrew Stewart, account manager of Wallaceburg, Ont.-based AarKel Tool and Die, a shop that’s been performing classic rapid/prototype tooling since its inception in 1977. “Many of the moldmakers that only offered rapid tooling have disappeared anyway because they’re not diversified enough, so we no longer need a terminology change to set us apart.”

A LOST ART?

It just might be a moot point anyway. “The rapid tooling process itself may be on the way out, for the simple reason that there are very few situations where it’s worthwhile anymore,” Todd Grimm said. “Originally, rapid tooling was defined as the ability to generate core and cavity inserts as a product of a rapid prototyping technology, and had the advantage of communicating complex designs quickly, clearly and concisely. Nowadays, though, everyone is in the same speed category, and the term–by whatever name–will probably continue to lose its distinction.”

This isn’t to write the newly-named additive manufacturing off entirely, though. “Shops like AarKel that perform true rapid tooling still have a significant cost edge over those who do not have this as part of the business model, because the process allows for dedicated tool building techniques and for specific testing to be done before the customer invests in a production tool with the same team, transferring knowledge from one to the other,” said Andrew Stewart. “Also, having a group of dedicated rapid tooling workers gives true rapid toolers a technical edge.”

Nevertheless, Stewart acknowledged a decline of sorts in the demand for rapid tooling. “A lot of OEMs, looking to shorten project time, are eliminating the rapid tooling step by involving the tool builders in the project from the feasibility stage onward,” he said. “This is where the value of diversification comes in–as AarKel has done–so that a shop has other skills to offer.”