The process uses additive machines that build finished metal or plastic items directly from 3D CAD models. This eliminates the cutting tools and laborious programming found in conventional manufacturing.

A sign of the trend is a system recently brought to the U.S. market by EOS of North America Inc., in Novi, Mich. (eos.info), the U.S. arm of a Germany company. Compact enough to fit through a standard doorway, the Formiga P 100 targets filigree components and small, complex parts, such as medical devices that fit in the human ear. With a build envelope of 200 X 250 X 330 mm, the Formiga uses a CO2, 30-W laser to sinter parts from 0.1-mm-thick layers of powderbased polyamide or polystyrene. A fine-focus diameter on the laser can build walls as thin as 0.4 mm with high surface quality. The machine's build rate approaches 1 in./hr.

"Operating multiple, smaller format machines such as the Formiga can provide great flexibility in scheduling production," says company Vice President North America James Fendrick. "And, note that we practice what we preach. For example, Formiga itself has 23 laser-sintered components, including the switch cover, material hopper, and pyrometer elements," he says.