Additive Manufacturing (AM) remains a hot topic, offering tremendous benefits to manufacturers, especially for complex parts. Inroads are being made in newer and more sophisticated applications than previously thought possible by most users. 3-D printing was the domain of small plastic parts, rapid prototyping, and some rapid tooling. Now the technology offers a very wide material set and is on the brink of becoming commonplace. That would however understate the promise that AM offers today's manufacturers. Global names like General Electric (GE AM), Moog (Moog AM), and others are investing into this in a big way with much research and development effort and funds into this promising technology.
Whereas 3-D printing has taken a long 30-year plus journey to get to this point, the acceleration now is incredible. Once the domain of desktop printers that could make small prototypes in a day or two or in service bureaus that turned them around in a week, now you can find full-scale production where the manufacturing centers on the shop floor are churning out parts with alloys, exotic materials, on very sophisticated and robust highly-engineered parts. This opens up markets like aerospace, automotive, major appliances, medical devices, and others where these now offer all the benefits of AM to their product lines.
Some of the core benefits of Additive Manufacturing include less set up and fixturing time which improves throughput and reduces overhead; industrial tooling direct from the CAD system such as SolidWorks and AutoCAD; production using unconventional materials based parts such as bio-compatible, implantable devices, that previously were not feasible in the "traditional machine shop" environment. Optimation is integrating AM technologies into some clients’ manufacturing lines, with skid-based systems delivering materials to printers (machine tools!). These dosing and delivery systems are going into processes where previously numerous operations with setup times, fixturing costs, and rework would otherwise have occupied triple the floor space and labor content, sometimes with half of the accuracy.
Universities, such as our local Rochester Institute of Technology’s Center for Advanced Technology (RIT AM) are also heavily in pursuit of applications and advances in AM. Especially where the commercial promise of AM can be combined with the technologically challenging requirements of some the geometries or the complicated fixturing and handling of parts during the manufacturing process, AM brings a lot to the equation.
There are several different core technologies that make up AM. They include: SLS-- selective laser sintering; SLA-- stereolithography; FDM-- fused deposition modeling, and others. Each as various strengths and weaknesses in its material sets deposition methods and other parameters that influence the appropriateness for the desired process compatibility. As companies embrace AM as a staple in their arsenal of manufacturing options we will see increased application of new materials, and advances in cycle times, tolerances, and innovation.
Some good resources for further reference include the manufacturers and universities mentioned above, as well as some of the consortia focused on AM such as America Makes, which facilitates collaboration among leaders from business, academia, nonprofit organizations and government agencies (America Makes AM) and the federal NIST information (NIST Facts) resource. Stay tuned for many more rapidly-developing technologies related to AM as the application and automation of these processes enable ever more advanced capabilities to be integrated into the manufacturing world of tomorrow.