Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Rapid Thoughts at Local

It is our intention to bring a prototype vehicle to market with speed and efficiency. As we have delineated our critical path, we have naturally begun to look to ways to gain efficiency and to save time.

One of our explorations has been a serious look at rapid prototyping (RP). From customer prizes, to vendor sourcing, and to part making, each is something we need to manage at Local Motors, and this way of doing things quickly and accurately is ripe with potential.

(Blue and White Vase, Inkjet Printing Technology, courtesy of Z Corporation)

A couple of years ago, I visited 3D Systems headquarters in South Carolina and walked away with my head spinning. I have now been back to 3D and been to other companies since that time, and the pace of development has been breakneck. From the $5,000 Desktop Factory out of Idealab to the $1MM Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) behemoths at 3D, the range of capabilities, reliability, and PRICE is nothing short of huge.

And this range above is really just referring to a discussion of Rapid Prototyping, which is only the beginning. As it is said in the industry, when Rapid Prototyping "grows up" as a technology, it will become Rapid Manufacturing. Also known as Direct Digital Manufacturing, this business is the idea of making a part (NOT A PROTOTYPE) directly from a CAD file using additive materials. I first saw this at an American Le Mans race shop where a company was making fuel tank floaters to go inside an open wheel car's fuel bladder and they were making the actual part, NOT A PROTOTYPE. When it came off of the "printer" and I held it, I had to blink twice and shake my head to try to grasp the concept that they had just built a usable race-ready part off of a "printer".

In this post, it was my original intention to provide an expose of the latest and greatest thoughts that we have developed on RP (and even RM), but the truth is that the information is so voluminous and rapidly changing, that anything I write is almost guaranteed to be contradicted or outdated in a matter of months. I almost started this post many times over the past several months, only to be thwarted by the task of synthesizing all of the latest material....SO I have chosen a different approach.

Here are a list of opening leads which let you do the research at the pace that interests and concerns your needs or desires. Almost everything leads back to everything else, so where you start is less important than finding a place in which you can relate to RP.

One critical lifesaver in an ocean of information is Castle Island Co.

Castle may look like a cheap site, but in reality, it is an unbelievable resource for people to learn about every technology (and there are a lot) and every company that makes products within that technology. Even a first time user can understand it and make it useful.

Spend some time on the site and you will find yourself spending more time on the site, and then you will get more and more hooked, and before you know it, your dog will have fallen asleep at the foot of your chair with the frisbee still in his mouth. Really, the organization and the amount of information is incredible.

If you've not already, dive into some of the sites from the actual vendors themselves. Many of them have videos and flash animations that make it easier to understand what they do. From the "2001 A Space Odyssey video from Stratasys to the brash Z Corp intro, even the videos show the breadth of the competition. Here's one linked for your pleasure!

Remember that despite the cool factor of some of these technologies, knowing what you NEED them for and how you can apply them before you make a purchase decision makes all the difference in the world between a machine that gathers dust and one that is a competitive advantage. We have visited too many shops where FARO arms are gathering dust in the corner because they were non-core to the business and not matched properly to the needs of the business. Said another way, you will find RP tools at small race shops like Joe Gibbs Racing and at large OEMs such as BMW, and even though both businesses have the same tool, it does not mean that the tool is being utilized to its potential in either shop. It all depends on your perception and communication of the need for its capabilities. Often smaller shops can utilize these tools to a more full potential than an OEM giant.

Note that more than ever, there are businesses which can get you into RP and RM without your having to buy the machinery. These firms offer access to the output of these types of machines on a per part basis. Though the cost of such a service is quite high, for people not sure what they want or for those with only a limited need, such offerings can make a great deal of sense. One good example of a firm such as this is Mydea Technologies found at the University of Central Florida (UCF) Tech incubator.

Lastly I recommend that you take a careful look at the output of each company and technology. If seeing is believing then holding is really believing. At the 3D University, part of the York Tech South Carolina Community College district, they have a hall where they display output from many different sorts of technologies, or at the annual SEMA conference, or at the RAPID SME conference even more vendors and their product outputs can be seen. Additionally you can order or arrange to see finished product samples or products being made form every company. All of these are good and will suffice, but do your best to put your hands on some of these results of Rapid Prototyping. I am convinced that they will blow your mind and make you even more hungry for knowledge.

They have for us, and we are only at the beginning. Such a revolution in part production is something that would have made the late Boyd Coddington proud, and on the day of his passing, we say a prayer for him and all of the car loving disciples he has given life to.

Go Local and Go Rapid!

God Bless you Boyd.


Mydea said...

This is Mike Siemer of Mydea Technologies. Nice article! If you'd like to stop by for a nickel tour here at UCFTI, please give me a call. Thanks, Mike 407.737.1991

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