AM is Changing the Factory Game
Manufacturing Engineering Magazine February 2019
By ME Staff Report

Additive manufacturing is being used for large parts, energy parts and a lot more. It is being used to fabricate parts for applications as varied as aircraft and auto production, dental restoration, medical implants and more. By redefining standards and changing certification and classification systems for various industries, AM is changing the way manufacturers create, customize, repair and produce parts.

Applications for AM include parts that are small, large and in-between. For example, at one trade show a few years ago, Cincinnati Inc. printed a 1,000 lb car body in just 44 hours. Harrison, Ohio-based Cincinnati markets its own BAAM (big area additive manufacturing) and SAAM (small area additive manufacturing) 3D printing machines, according to Rick Neff, AM product and sales manager.

BAAM is an industrial-sized additive machine using the design and technology from Cincinnati’s laser platform—including the machine frame, motion system, and control—and is adapted with an extruder and feeding system. SAAM is optimized for carbon-fiber composite 3D printing and enables continuous, unattended 3D printing via Cincinnati’s patented automated ejection system.

Focus on Production Parts
The fast-growing interest in large-part AM is being driven by the exponentially faster speeds in production scale projects. The conventional manufacturers of large carbon fiber reinforced polymer (CFRP) parts, for example, produce tools or molds for specific part, buy material and shape it to the desired geometry, then do a carbon fiber layup. Letting it cure and doing more subtractive work, along with the lead time required, means the process can take well over a year.  Using AM, a shop can design and print the part, design and print the tool, and produce a part off the tool in the space of a week.

Another significant difference is not being locked into one design for months and months. AM technology means tools now can simply be reprinted if changes are needed or design specs change. It’s a game changer for speed and design flexibility.

There’s a lot of technology going on right now, both chemically and mechanically, to change that. Machinery is evolving. Several large printer manufacturers now have products on the market. There’s a lot of talk [that AM capabilities] could grow to be the size of the injection molding industry. That might be a stretch in five years, but AM is definitely the next frontier.

Topology Optimization
In terms of design innovation, the cutting edge lies in part consolidation (making hollow objects) and topology optimization (strength only where needed). Hollow objects are produced by traditional manufacturing, a left side and a right side are made to be pieced together.

With 3D printing, we can actually make things hollow as you build them. Where that’s used in energy applications is in conformal cooling, or cooling channels, where they can actually make these complex tube shapes that fluid flows through.  If you’re making something out of wood or steel or plastic, you typically cut away what you don’t want. But if you look at nature, on a tree the branches are only there to hold up the limbs. The limbs are only there to hold up the leaves. It’s not a big block. So, what you do with topology optimization is remove a lot of the weight. And you get these organic-looking shapes.

Savings on time are coupled by savings on equipment costs thanks to 3D printing’s ease of pre-machining tool design. The oil and gas industry is already reaping enormous benefits from AM. Because worker safety is crucial, being able to test various elements of drill operations, for example, before machining parts to go underground means risks become fewer, improving on-the-job safety.

AM Adoption Growing
AM manufacturing has three areas of expansion. The first is adoption, with a lot of growth in low-end prototyping. It means architecture or engineering firms can purchase a 3D printer for their office for as little as $5,000. Elsewhere, production of machines that process metals is probably seeing the largest sustained percentage growth, about 70 percent a year.

But, if you want to know where the real radical growth is happening (imagine a graph shaped like a hockey stick), look at software development for niche technologies. Although lots of work is being done in this field, only a handful of companies are ahead of the curve with 3D printing applications. However, established giants like Siemens and Dassault Systèmes are now discovering its potential.

As always, when technology advances, some elements are left behind. Currently out of favor is the industrial-grade polymer plastics printer. But laser-based machines have an important role to play in the long term as sectors such as aerospace expand. As a result, the potential is ripe for any and all innovations.

Metal materials for AM have been somewhat limited, particularly in powder-bed fusion, the most widespread metal 3D printing technology on the market. Its global market will grow to around $12 billion in just 10 years, market researchers IDTechEx has predicted. This growth will not only be caused by greater adoption of the technology as prices drop and new technology emerges, but also by the materials portfolio itself expanding.

New Material Development
There are so many materials, so Concept Laser LLC company focuses on coming up with new materials. When one thinks of laser sintered parts, stainless steel and titanium come to mind. But a lot of “exotic work” is going on in new alloys as well as with Inconel, copper, and titanium-aluminide. Some smart people out there are innovating with proprietary powders that will bring ever-greater precision, as well as saving even more time and money. Because of that, they’re developing three or four new powders per quarter as a goal.

A crucial advantage of laser sintered production is being able to quickly and easily verify the design, with great benefits derived from early and regular prototyping.

The Future of AM
What kind of future does your business have with AM? The outstanding factor in all of this is that complex parts can now be produced without any tooling and without the design constraints of conventional manufacturing methods.

Components can be made today that would not have been possible even just a few years ago. Not only that, 3D printing has achieved a geometrical complexity that cannot be matched by any other production technique.

No longer consigned to just prototyping technology, AM has reached the standards required for high-end series components for the most demanding of industry applications. With ever-faster systems using stronger lasers and bigger build chambers, the technology will likely continue to grab an increasing market share of production processes.