How Additive Manufacturing Advances are Poised for a Liftoff

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High-resolution 3D printers can make model cars or functional gearboxes.

Many prognosticators predict that additive manufacturing will eventually transform the way most products are built. While that may happen in a few decades, there are many day-to-day challenges that must be met when companies start making products by building layers up instead of removing materials to shape blocks into useful products.

Improvements in the metals and plastics used in additive manufacturing, coupled with advances in production equipment, now make additive manufacturing viable even in high reliability fields like aircraft. Additive processes, which are also called 3D manufacturing, can often be used to build a single structure for components now made by combining multiple parts.

“When people are doing complex configurations, they will see the benefits of additive manufacturing,” says Ed Morris, director of the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute (NAMII) and vice president of the National Center for Defense Manufacturing and Machining.

NAMII is a public-private partnership that’s working on a number of projects designed to move additive manufacturing beyond the early adopter phase. One of the work groups is focusing on the technical barriers that must be overcome before additive manufacturing is a ubiquitous technology. Though 3D production can meet many requirements, it’s never going to displace time-proven technologies.

“Additive manufacturing will be an additional tool in the manufacturer’s tool kit,” Morris says. “It won’t cause CNC to go away, it will still be used in combination with other techniques. In some areas, injection molding is the best way to go. For products that are too complex to be done with traditional manufacturing, additive manufacturing will be the way to go.”

Product designers can do complex shapes and reduce the volume of materials when parts are built by fusing layers of metals or plastic together instead of by removing materials from a larger block of materials.

“It’s incredible what you can do with lattice structures when you can design them based on lead paths. With additive processes, you can do very lightweight, very clever lattice structures based on the load paths. You’re not constrained by the ability to do machining, so you can cut weight and lower cost by using less material,” Morris says.

Before companies can start gaining these benefits, they have to invest in training and equipment. Most manufacturers are currently doing more pilots and limited programs

“Additive manufacturing is still very much in the early adopter phase,” Morris says. “It’s still got a long ways to go, what we’re likely to see in the future staggers the imagination.”

“If the U.S. wants to be a leader in this technology instead of developing it and letting it go offshore, we need to seriously assess the investment the public sector is making in 3D printing. China is a serious investor in this technology and the European Union isn’t far behind,” Morris says.

While public funds are slow to come, private companies are investing in the technology and its infrastructure. Research and education must be done to make additive processes viable for more mainstream production.

Siemens recently gave Youngstown State University $440 million in software that will be used in part to establish a curriculum for training students to work with additive technologies. Morris noted that it’s important to take a broad view of manufacturing when programs like this are starting.

The digital prototype is first generated at different levels of detail.

The digital prototype is first generated at different levels of detail.

“Manufacturing is not just on the plant floor. It includes everything people do to conceptualize, design, build and test products, as well as support and disposal of end products.”

He notes that if companies start building a lot of custom parts, they will need a solid infrastructure to support aspects including design, production, labeling and shipping. Those issues scale rapidly when volumes rise.

“If you’re doing mass customization, you will have incredible challenges with configuration management,” Morris says.

For Morris, the goal of helping companies and educators is part of a larger plan. He feels that additive manufacturing can provide a way for the United States to create jobs and improve its global trade position by producing more goods.

“The essence of why we exist is to increase the ability of the United States to compete in manufacturing,” Morris says. “We’re confident that additive manufacturing will have a profound impact on the nation.”

Just as no one group can address the broad needs of all manufacturing operations, there’s not a central focal point for building the educational infrastructure needed to ensure that new students and those already in the workforce know the many subtleties of making parts using additive processes.

“We’re having a lot of discussions with academia, and we’re working with universities and community colleges. We’re also working with the Society of Manufacturing Engineers regarding some certification concepts, especially in areas like stackable certificates,” Morris says.

For more information on advances in manufacturing, please click here.

Source: This article is based on an Industry Week (IW) webinar, sponsored by Siemens, titled, “The industrializing of Additive Manufacturing: How Technologies Like 3D Printing are Supporting Faster, More Efficient and More Competitive Factories.”

To view this webinar On-Demand, click here.

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