|A 3D Systems Machine|
Working with then start-up company 3D Systems, Inc. to improve the part machining industry, DataPlex's disruptive work established 3D Systems' baseline technology that became the foundation of the billion dollar industries now known as "Rapid Prototyping" and "3D Printing."
DataPlex principals Harry Tarnoff, Stuart Spence, Richard Harlow, Warren Juran and David Remba worked within 3D Systems to develop in short order the CAD, laser controller and part building subsystems for 3D Systems' original SLA machine. Dr. Spence served as 3D Systems' Chief Scientist, Mr. Tarnoff served as 3D Systems' Director of Advanced Projects, Mr. Harlow concentrated on the Unix-based CAD engine, and Mr. Juran provided critical systems modeling that helped turn scientific theory into production reality.
Before the arrival of 3D Systems, typically the way development engineers created newly conceived parts for the first time were on numerically-controlled (NC) machines. Since these machines were often used for production and had a significant backlog, R&D engineers had to wait sometimes for several weeks to be able to evaluate the results. Since the NC tooling machines weren't linked to the development engineers' 3D computer aided design (CAD) systems, the NC machine operators had to interpret blueprints where mistakes crept in, delaying the process further. Also, NC machines have limitations, for example, not being able to generate detail inside the part.
3D Systems' solution was to automate the prototyping process by passing the 3D CAD information directly to a new type of machine called an SLA, a "Stereolithography Apparatus," which was based on a newly patented process of polymerization whereby a plastic liquid is converted into a sculpted solid through the use of laser beams. Not only was the automated process much faster, interior detail could be just as complex as that for the exterior since parts are made from a series of stacked layers.
While the concept sounded easy, there were many technical challenges. First, the 3D information from the CAD systems had to be converted to a series of layers that could be drawn by the laser. Second, the laser beams had to be directed with great precision and at great speed. Custom solutions to the thicker portions of parts had to be devised so that parts wouldn't warp out of tolerance. Also, many parts had curves and other appendages that needed additional support lest they breaking apart during the build process. Needless to say, solutions were found for these and many other challenges.
3D Systems survived and grew. It now leads an industry that turns out prototype and limited production parts in a matter of hours instead of weeks. This massive improvement in the area of design has enabled such companies as auto manufacturers to reduce design delays and get vehicles to market in 50% less time. We here at DataPlex are proud to have been part of this success story.