#163 from R&D Innovator Volume 4, Number 6          June 1995

A Dream That’s Coming True    
by Yehoram Uziel

Mr. Uziel is founder, president and chief executive officer of Soligen Technologies, Inc.

I love history, and have always been fascinated by the influences of great inventors.  As a child, I dreamed of being in the same category as Gutenberg, Edison, and Newton.  But it didn’t take long to realize that I wasn’t exactly in their league.  However, I’ve never lost the desire to contribute a highly significant breakthrough.                                   

Back in 1981, I worked for Optrotech, Ltd., an Israeli company that pioneered the automated optical inspection of printed circuit boards.  Eight years later, the company was the recognized market leader.  Then, I was vice president of new business development, looking for new opportunities.                        

Gutenberg’s simple idea of a printing press using moveable type resulted in the printing revolution.  It made the written word available to everyone.  By analogy, I was looking for a way to create a 3-dimensional printing press using moveable type.  I envisioned a machine fed with  computer aided design (CAD) information for a manufactured part—say an automotive engine block.  The machine would automatically, and simply, produce the part.  

At that time, I didn’t have a clue of how to make such a 3-dimensional printing press. When I shared this idea with my close friends and business partners, they became concerned that I was having an early mid-life crisis.                                            

Molds for Parts Manufacturing
                                                                                              

Industrial components (e.g. tools) and functional parts (e.g. pistons) are either made by carving them out of billets or by casting them into pre-made cavities or molds made of either steel or sand.  The steel molds, themselves, are made by casting steel into ceramic molds.  A 3-dimensional printing press that automatically produces ceramic molds, could be useful for both direct metal parts fabrication, as well as casting the steel molds, themselves.                                                                                                          

The typical process of making ceramic molds for metal casting today is only slightly different from the process which the Romans used two thousand years ago to make tools and vessels.  That process used a wood or a wax pattern (the positive impression) of the item, which was covered with sand or clay.  After the clay mold (the negative impression) hardened, the wood pattern was pulled out of the clay mold or the wax was burned out.  Molten metal is poured inside to form the final object.  After the metal solidifies, the clay mold is cracked open to yield the metal part.  A separate clay mold was therefore needed for each different metal part.                                                                                 

Today’s pattern-makers are specialists who form their patterns from blueprints.  Although the wood has been replaced by other materials, pattern-makers often use manual sculpting to achieve the desired shape and texture.  It’s a slow and expensive process.  While the expense may be justified for an object manufactured in large quantities, it really becomes costly for parts that are produced in relatively small quantities.  The expense is especially felt for prototypes that must be tested--and frequently discarded--before the commercial stage.                                                                                           

My first stab at fabricating patterns automatically took place at Optrotech, where I built an apparatus that could create 3-dimensional objects directly from CAD files.  Using electro-optics, we controlled a laser beam to draw cross sections of the pattern on the top layer of an optical liquid glue that solidified under the laser.  We made a succession of cross sections until the entire pattern  was formed in solid, laminated plastic.  That plastic pattern became the master, or positive impression, from which ceramic molds (negative impressions) could be made.                                                                                                    

To test the machine’s ability to make a complex part, I programmed the computer to form a chain, which is excruciatingly difficult to produce with standard mold-making techniques.  It worked beautifully, and I could hardly contain my excitement--this system was powerful!                                                                                                       

However, my partners tried to persuade me to abandon the idea of making patterns for metal casting, and focus on making plastic prototypes.  They said that the market would love a 3- dimensional printer for design verification, even if the plastic parts are just models and could not be tested functionally.  They also pointed out that most foundries were poor, "mom and pop" shops which use primitive technology, certainly not computers. And they have no incentive to risk their little capital for this expensive technology.                                                                                                                                          

I knew that bringing the technology to market would take several years and many millions of dollars.  Still, convinced there must be some interest in direct pattern making for metal casting, I visited more than 50 foundries around the world.  My partners were right:  almost all foundrymen were set in their ways.  Our rapid prototyping excitement didn’t last long either.  While attempting to patent my new invention, we learned that a California start-up company called 3D Systems was planning to commercialize a similar idea.                                                                                        

3D Systems was interested in rapid prototyping, and agreed to form a joint venture with Optrotech to use our technology.  I was hoping that, after a while, I would be able to resume my rapid pattern making as a separate avenue for rapid prototyping.  However, despite my relentless efforts, the project flunked before Optrotech’s funding committee and I felt that I missed my         opportunity to become another Gutenberg.                                                                                                               

In 1989, I joined 3D systems as vice president of engineering.  After 4 months of concentrated effort, we successfully launched the rapid prototyping system.  However, I still saw rapid prototyping as only an interim step.  My vision was to produce parts--directly.                                                                                                

At that time, a team of engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) led by Dr. Emanuel Sachs and Dr. Mike Cima, was developing a process to create ceramic molds (the negative impression) directly.  Their idea was to move an inkjet-type printing head across a fine layer of ceramic powder.  Under control of a computer, the head would “spit” tiny drops of liquid binder which would solidify the powder to make the cross-section.  As with the laser rapid prototyping system, repeated cross-sections would be assembled to produce the product--which in this case was the ceramic mold itself, instead of the pattern the machine could directly     produce a ceramic-mold with no geometrical limitation.  At 3D Systems, our rapid prototyping focused on the master form (positive impression), but the MIT process completely bypassed it, making the mold (negative impression) directly.  Here was an opportunity to revive my Gutenberg dream, 3-dimensional printing!                

My Own Venture                                                               

I left 3D Systems to pursue this idea at my own start-up, Soligen, and bought the license to apply the MIT concept to the metal-parts industry.  We planned to initially capture the “high end” part of the market for metal parts (parts with complex geometry made in small quantities).  I recalled the cautions of my ex-partners in Optrotech, but I just knew we could do it—if we could only fund the development.  We finally persuaded several companies to advance money so we could build our first machines.  We called the new concept Direct Shell Production Casting (DSPC). 

In June of 1992, a handful of engineers and I worked around the clock in my garage to design, build, and install three Alpha machines.  By October, we demonstrated our concept (without even a fully operational Alpha machine) at the annual Investment Casting Institute.  Our demonstration attracted attention and we raised more development money.                                                                                  

Before we moved to Soligen's current site, we had two interesting visitors.  One was Bill Torodoff, head of the casting division of Ashland Chemical, who read about Soligen’s DSPC technology and couldn’t believe that it would work.  Shortly thereafter, Ashland became an additional co-development partner and this gained us substantial exposure.  The other visitor was a detective--summoned by a suspicious neighbor who wondered about the strange activities at my house.  The detective, happily, was an ex-engineer, and he let us complete our work--and visited regularly to see our progress--even though we were breaking a zoning ordinance.                                                                                                                          

At that point we had to decide on our marketing strategy, should we focus on developing the DSPC technology and sell the machines to foundries, or should we try a different approach?  Realizing that the market for metal parts is less risky and much larger than the market for equipment aimed at the foundry industry, we decided that, instead of trying to sell our        equipment, we would make metal parts directly for manufacturers.  We concluded that our mission is to become a “one-stop shop for metal parts."                                                                        

Soligen was then organized to become a unique manufacturer of metal parts to end users, at any quantity, directly from a CAD file.  Our unique position in the market would be, unlike other metal parts manufacturers, to offer the customer the metal parts without the need to invest in patterns or molds prior to producing and testing the first article.  Utilizing DSPC to initially produce the first articles and then the patterns or the steel molds for mass production, all the parts will be related directly to the original design, since either the parts themselves or the tooling used to fabricate them will be generated directly from the designer’s CAD--and that’s exactly what Gutenberg’s printing revolution did to the written word.                                                                     

Perhaps we could become “printing houses,” much as Gutenberg did.  In June 1994, we acquired our first foundry and machine shop,  and in January 1995 we opened a new business called Parts Now™.  Soon thereafter we experienced proof that Parts Now™ has merit.  Caterpillar challenged us to make complex engine components within a week.  It would have taken months to produce similar parts by traditional methods. Parts Now™ dazzled Caterpillar as it delivered fully functional parts within five business days from receiving the CAD file over the modem.                                                                              

I never checked the Guinness book of records, but I believe that functional testing of engine components, five working days after they were taken from the drawing board is a new record in producing functional metal parts.  We’ve proved, in less than three years, that the Parts Now™ concept works.  Thank goodness I pursued my interest in metal parts in spite of hearing skeptic’s comments.  I believe that the ability to order functional metal parts via telephone, and to receive the first part in days, instead of months, will revolutionize manufacturing and change the way engineers work.  The Caterpillar case is just an example of the flexibility, and additional new  degrees of freedom in designing new products, provided to engineers in a manner which is faster than any traditional fabrication process.                                                                                                              

To me, these are the early signs of a dream coming true.  I'm not going to predict that Parts Now™ will affect the human race as significantly as Gutenberg’s press, but who knows how far our work will reach?

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