3D printing, or in its industrial terminology, Additive Layered Manufacturing (ALM) is changing the manufacturing industry and rules of engineering design. The technology drivers are rapid and easy design and manufacture, enabling manufacture of complex structures, increasing use in medical applications and consumer driven demand. However, there are still considerable challenges to creating the factory of the future lined with ALM machines. Printing speeds of machines for industrial scale production are still low, design and set up of a factory using ALM tools requires development and consideration for best outcome, and most importantly the validation of materials/powders used in production. This is work in progress that requires considerable development effort. Finally creating a sustainable supply chain for the materials used in ALM is another challenge that needs to be overcome.
Despite the fact that industrial applications still require some time before they can be exploited large scale, now is the time to get thinking about opportunities for innovation in materials, validation methods, creation of supply chains for materials, as well as other factory requirements – and most importantly new business models. The technology has already revolutionized the speed and cost of prototyping in some industries and it will spread fast. How can your business capitalize on this nascent, but rapidly growing opportunity?
On October 16th I joined the curious crowd at the London Innovation Summit 2014 organised by Codex
(http://www.plus-91.com/innovation.pdf, listen to talks on:
I came away with a lot to think about and a number of topics to read more about. The summit was organized around a number of themes, of which I found many very relevant to the industries I work with, and issues my clients face today. In this post I will focus on the presentations and discussions on 3D printing, hailed as the third industrial revolution.
3D printing was the topic that stirred a lot of interest and for most participants I spoke to, it was the technology that concerns them most, with its potential to radically change manufacturing. It is well known that the technology is not new, however it is moving out of the specialist labs and making an impact on how things are done nearly everywhere.
Paul Gately, EMEA Manager at 3D systems spoke of four key drivers for the advance of 3D printing:
- Design and manufacture
- Creation of existing products become more effective/efficient
- Manufacturing complex structures is currently very difficult, expensive and sometimes impossible. 3D printing enables creating such structures by removing constraints of usual manufacturing
- Considerable increase in applications in medical sector
- Personalization of implants
- Consumer driven demand
- Objects that consumers want or even design themselves can be produced for own use or use by others
Another important aspect that was highlighted was availability of materials that can be used in 3D printers, and whether these will be up to task when the product is put to use. Today there are around 100 different materials, plastics, nylons, metals, rubbers, waxes, composites and biocompatible materials that are used in 3D printing.
Industrial applications of 3D printing are addressing crucial issues in design and production. For example in aerospace, complexity, weight efficiency, and manufacturability of designs can be addressed rapidly. For example the number of components in one piece of kit is reduced considerably because it can be printed as one solid form. In the automotive industry the technology is already in use addressing a number of aspects such as customization, design, validation and manufacture. In healthcare, personalized medicine, and devices span through anatomically fitting modules (internal and external) and personalized surgical tools and hybrid exoskeletons. This leads to shorter healing times through perfectly fitting implants, as well as tools that enable higher precision for the surgeon and therefore less damage to the tissue etc.
The key contribution of 3D printing in revolutionizing manufacturing is enabling iterations and changes in engineering of the parts or full pieces of products easier and considerably cheaper. Most engineers at work today have come through their design courses learning to design with the constraints of manufacturing technologies. 3D printing enables them to design without consideration for those constraints enabling them to design with minimum or no compromise on form, fit, function and feel of the final product. This means design rules will change.
A major contribution in industrial and other applications is production of a fully functional prototype that can go to testing cheap and fast. This alone can have a considerable impact on innovation by enabling prototyping and testing a larger number of products cheaper and faster leading to products with higher success potential coming to market faster.
Dr. Hamid Mughal OBE, Director of Manufacturing at Rolls-Royce focused on an example from the aerospace explaining how at Rolls-Royce they are developing the use of advanced powder based manufacturing to reduce the need for machining and high temperature forging to achieve overall reduction of steps in the production process as well as 75% less use of materials using Additive Layered Manufacturing (ALM or 3D printing). The result is customization as well as speed and freedom in design. However, he emphasized that today it is challenging to create a quality assured piece for aerospace engines by ALM as the operating conditions are harsh and the use of ALM produced parts requires adaptation as well as validation. This means, although the technology is highly valuable and the company continues to develop the technology for full use in the future, it is going to take time to have ALM processes for validated industrial components. This is in contrast wit the rapid advance of 3D manufacturing for consumer products, which is much nearer to coming to a print shop in town.
For industrial application of ALM there are a number of fundamental challenges that require deep scientific understanding and a considerable amount of work to address:
- Speeds of the machines are still low for industrial production and requires continuous improvement
- Design and set up of a factory using ALM tools
- Powder validation
- What is a good powder?
- When to use a specific type of powder?
- How to ascertain the quality of the powder? How many rounds materials can be recycled into usable powder/
- Validation and inspection of the properties of powder
- Creating a sustainable supply chain of powder materials for use in ALM
Rolls-Royce is already working on ALM for a decade and the focus is on deep understanding of the science and technology to create a robust technology for their product requirements. The aspects of their work are:
- Understanding the materials and creating material and property databases
- Integrating ALM models and knowledge in PLM (product life cycle management)
- Creating an economic production process with consideration for ALM processes as well as post process cost
- Working on rapid manufacturing of elements that are relevant and continuously learning from these processes
- Characterising powders and gaining a deep understanding of their physics and chemistry
The final speaker on the subject, Paul Croft director of Ultimaker, creating cheap and simple 3D printers for educational purposes spoke about the work they do to bring the new way of thinking about design to schools to start off the next generation of engineers and designers with the manufacturing technology of the future.