The Additive Manufacturing Revolution Continues

additive-manufacturing_1While 3D printing isn’t dominating the press the way it was several years ago, it nonetheless remains alive and well. Companies—and governments—continue to focus on the technology and its application, investing considerable resources as they jockey for position in local and global markets. Well-established for prototyping, additive manufacturing is on the cusp of moving to production as the basis for its long-term growth.

To get a sense of where additive manufacturing (AM) such as 3D printing is going, take a trip to Phoenix, Arizona. Local Motors, a Phoenix-based startup automotive manufacturer, is using the technology for a disruptive approach to designing and building cars.

Local Motors is using a micro-manufacturing factory model where a vehicle can be produced in matter of hours to days using technologies such as 3D printing: the entire body and chassis is printed using a blend of 80 percent ABS plastic and 20 percent carbon fiber. The design of the vehicle is based on a community approach where independent designers are solicited to contribute to the design, and those designs accepted are compensated with royalties. The micro-factories can be set up relatively quickly and located directly in each market. Each vehicle can be customized for an individual buyer and delivered in a matter of days.

Where have you gone, Henry Ford and mass production?

Local Motors calls this business model mass customization where scope (design, functionality) is scaled, rather than production scaled up to meet a mass market of the same model. Three Local Motor micro-factories already exist in the Phoenix, AZ, and Las Vegas, NV, areas; two additional sites recently opened in Knoxville, TN, and National Harbor, MD; and, nearly 100 more locations are planned to open around the world, from Beijing to Berlin, within the next 10 years.

According to industry analyst Wohlers Associates, last year 62 manufacturers worldwide produced and sold industrial-grade AM systems, an increase of more than 26 percent from the year prior. Third-party companies that produce materials for additive manufacturing are also entering the market at a fast pace.

What’s driving the growth? According to a state of the industry report on advancedmanufacturing.org, “The next frontier and big opportunity is the use of AM to create final production-quality parts, and that’s precisely where much of the focus and investment has been in the recent past.”

3D printing is booming, and the U.S. market research institute IDC expects the sector’s global sales to increase by 30 percent annually between 2016 and 2019 to more than $26 billion. Innovations in 3D printing are also helping industries to develop a new level of flexibility, allowing, for example, design studies and prototypes to be created faster and thus more cost-efficiently and series-printed parts to be used in the engines and control systems of airplanes.

3D printing is also in demand for the production of small numbers of components. In the rail industry, for example, where vehicles are often used for more than 30 years, 3D printing can make it possible to quickly and economically produce plastic or metal spare parts that are seldom required. The resulting operating experience can lead to technical improvements.

additive-manufacturing_2Opportunities for All

Additive manufacturing opens up huge opportunities for startups, small manufactures, and large companies such as Siemens, especially in the service business. For instance, the Siemens Competence Center for Additive Manufacturing in Erlangen, Germany, already produces individually adapted spare parts for the rail industry, quickly and cost-efficiently.

The two-story building on the Siemens campus in Erlangen, a university town just north of Nuremberg, doesn’t exactly look like a production plant for spare parts. It has no smokestack, no machine hall, and no assembly line. Instead, it has large windows, pleated blinds, and sterile-looking corridors. But behind the veneered corridor doors, Siemens’ Mobility Division is ushering in a new era for spare parts. That’s because it is printing parts instead of breaking them out of molds or milling them from metal blocks. “We can produce complex parts without having to worry about minimum volumes or the cost of tools,” says Maximilian Kunkel, director of research and development at the Siemens Competence Center.

The municipal utility company in Ulm, a city in southern Germany, is one of the beneficiaries. After the company launched a small fleet of Siemens Combino streetcars in 2003, several streetcar drivers said they would like to have additional switches on the driver’s seat armrest for the turn signals and for setting switch rails. But because the number of units required was very small, conventional manufacturing methods would have been impractical.

However, thanks to a digital model of the armrest, it was possible to redesign it with cavities into which switches could be installed. The production process used laser sintering to build up each armrest layer by layer from a bed of plastic powder in a 3D printer. Wherever the laser struck the plastic powder, the powder briefly became viscous before it hardened into a mass. After the excess powder was removed, the printer’s operators had a blank that was ready for use after being dyed and treated.

In the past, whenever spare parts were not available, streetcar operators had to wait for weeks or even months before expensive tools could be manufactured. Moreover, they generally had to purchase a certain minimum number of parts. Today, in many cases, spare parts can be produced at the Erlangen Competence Center and delivered to the customer within a few days.

As this example illustrates, 3D printing can be used to quickly and easily manufacture components with complex geometries that would be very difficult to produce with conventional methods. In fact, 3D printing is often more cost-efficient than producing parts by other methods and then storing them until needed.

How the Process Works

For an additive manufacturing job, the Siemens Competence Center team first creates a CAD (computer-aided design) model. This is often much better than the original, due to the use of an optimized design, better material, and an improved printing process. To create the model’s physical counterpart, the associated data is transmitted to one of the center’s three printers that produce the parts from plastic, aluminum, or stainless steel.

This step is followed by tests for handling, stiffness, and most importantly, fire protection. To prevent fires, the Center almost exclusively uses a high-performance plastic characterized by low flammability. “While other manufacturers are still testing their parts, we are standardizing the printing processes for metals and plastic so that we can guarantee properties such as functionality and service life in advance,” says Kunkel.

additive-manufacturing_3Establishing New Frontiers

Advanced manufacturing is another area that Siemens is making amazing strides in additive manufacturing. This involves a collaboration between Siemens PLM and Siemens Digital Factory for automation and controllers. They are literally taking 3D printing out of the box (many 3D printers are confined in small space) and using robotic end effectors to fabricate large and complex parts. Siemens partnered with DMG Mori, who supplies hybrid machine tools that are capable of both additive and subtractive (milling) processes. Siemens PLM supplies its NX design for additive manufacturing software. Today, with advanced 3D printing techniques being developed, multi-material (steel, tungsten, Inconel) parts are being produced for specialized applications such as drilling heads for the oil & gas industry, large complex titanium landing gear fittings for the A&D sector, and very complex fittings for high-temperature chemical processes. Many of these parts can only be produced with these next-generation 3D printing techniques.

Siemens PLM is providing new convergent modeling technologies that combine facet, parametric, and solid modeling that can support these complex 3D printing techniques. The Siemens R&D labs have even developed a spiderbot: small, autonomous, multi-legged robots that can move to the location needed and perform 3-D printing operations and repairs to structure and parts.

Future Considerations

In the next decade, additive manufacturing is expected to be remarkably faster and less expensive; costs are expected to drop by 50 percent by 2023, while production speeds are forecast to increase by 400 percent during the same period. We shouldn’t be surprised, then, that AM market projections for the same year are $8.57 billion.

The American futurist Stewart Brand once quipped, “Once a new technology rolls over you, if you’re not part of the steamroller, you’re part of the road.” As additive manufacturing technology continues to develop rapidly, it doesn’t seem far-fetched to imagine parts of the steamroller—or the road—being printed!

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