Video by Arconic
by Jonathan Soriano
One of the new and innovative technologies that is contributing to the transformation of advanced manufacturing is additive manufacturing (AM). AM refers to the process of constructing a product, layer by layer, to manufacture an object from three-dimensional (3D) data. Previously, products had to be manufactured using traditional molding or subtractive techniques (e.g., cutting, milling, and grinding). The AM process starts with a 3D solid model that is scanned as a computer-aided design file and then sliced into thousands of layers by preparation software. Next, each layer is created through the selective choice of a material and/or energy to fuse the raw material, which then generates a printed product. This layer-wise fabrication approach employed by AM allows for the creation of almost any complex geometric shape.
The origins of AM began with photo sculpture in the 1860s and topography in the 1890s. AM technologies are constantly being redefined and customized to add value to a wide range of industries, including the automotive, aerospace, healthcare, and food industries, among others. The capabilities of AM are so diverse that manufacturers in the aerospace industry are able to produce fuel nozzles for passenger jet engines, while manufacturers in the healthcare industry are able to produce artificial limbs and joint replacements, using the same AM technology. Several global companies—such as General Electric, Boeing, Ford, Nike, Hasbro, and Hershey’s—have begun using AM to improve their productivity.
Conventional processes such as injection molding are usually more time and cost efficient for mass production than AM technologies, even with a larger start-up cost. However, subtractive or formative techniques (e.g., pressing, casting, and forming) impose restrictions on product design due to the need for fixtures, diverse tooling, potential collisions, and difficulty of tools reaching deep and invisible zones of complex shapes. Conventional methods also require the assembly of multiple parts to create complex geometric shapes, whereas AM technologies remove this requirement. Given that no start-up tooling is required, and the lack of restrictions imposed on product design, AM processes are thus more time and cost efficient when it comes to manufacturing custom products. Moreover, on-demand and on-location AM production can lower a firm’s inventory costs or reduce costs associated with delivery since fewer production steps and parts are needed.
The number of materials that AM can work with is constantly growing. A vast range of new plastics have been developed, as well as processes and machines that can be used for printing with ceramics, glass, paper, wood, cement, and graphene. Designers now have the ability to selectively place multiple materials precisely where they are required, in order to achieve optimal product functionality. Previously, AM was used solely for prototype construction prior to the manufacturing of a finished product. Today, firms are beginning to take advantage of the unique capabilities that AM technologies provide by using AM for spare parts, small series production, tooling, and single-part assemblies (products that require integrated mechanisms).
One limitation of AM technologies is the fact that designers are not completely capturing the full potential of the process yet. The amount of material waste created when fabricating components is very small relative to current manufacturing processes. Optimizing the use of this process requires rethinking the way products are designed in order to capitalize on the benefits of eliminating unnecessary materials or incorporating inner structures. Another major barrier to a more widespread adoption of AM is the high production costs. Although there is a minimal start-up cost, the high material costs, long machining hours, high energy consumption, and post-processing costs lead to high production costs. Therefore, the savings experienced by avoiding a large start-up cost are often reduced as production volume increases.
The current capabilities of AM technologies are best-suited for fabrication of products that involve customizable features or increased geometric complexity. However, several analysts predict that the next-generation machines will cut AM production costs significantly in the future. The volume threshold where AM technologies have an advantage has already increased. Align Technology’s Invisalign custom orthodontics, OwnPhones custom earphones, and GE Aviation’s fuel nozzle represent just a few scenarios in which AM technologies have been used to achieve cost-effective large-volume production. As the costs of programmable controllers, lasers, inkjet printing, and computer-aided design continue to fall, AM technologies will grow as the optimal manufacturing solution for a wide range of applications. It is in the best interest of manufacturing companies across all industries to adopt these technologies sooner rather than later, and take advantage of the benefits offered.
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Gao, Wei, et al. “The Status, Challenges, and Future of Additive Manufacturing in Engineering.” Science Direct, Elsevier, 17 Apr. 2015, www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0010448515000469.
Gilpin, Lyndsey. “3D Printing: 10 Companies Using It in Ground-Breaking Ways.” TechRepublic, 26 Mar. 2014, https://www.techrepublic.com/article/3d-printing-10-companies-using-it-in-ground-breaking-ways/