There is no doubt that additive processing will dramatically change the future of manufacturing. If you consider the original stereo lithography polymer proces, 3D printing, one example of additive manufacturing, has actually been around for a long time, 30 years according to one leading supplier. It has progressively impacted the process of new product design by allowing engineers and designers to view and evaluate parts and assemblies before actual manufacturing begins, shortening the time and reducing the cost of design iterations for high value projects.
The so-called “revolution” is the order of magnitude drop in the cost of 3D printing. From the SLS machines of 20 years ago at 6 figure prices, to recent high performance machines in the $20-30K range, we now have an explosion of machines at prices below$3000. and some as low as $300. This means that the barrier to creating new products has dropped by 2 orders of magnitude. Similarly for people who want to get into the 3D machinery manufacturing business, the cost of entry has fallen as well.
Consider the problem of material processing. 3D printers work by melting the source material, usually a plastic wire) and depositing it as a liquid to form the object you have a solid model of. While the stereolithography machines of the past had significant limitations due to the strength of the polymers they were using, today’s consumer level 3D printers are similarly limited to specific materials with relatively low melt temperatures. ABS, glass filled ABS and some polycarbonates are available as feed wires, but these materials have relatively low strength compared to metals like aluminum and steel.
3D printers do resolve the problem of how to make parts in low volume so that the cost of test marketing, or in some cases, new market introduction of products, can be supported with processes that are extremely cost effective. Certainly, the cost of machining parts in small batches or making a mold for injection molding can be avoided and the cost of printed parts is relatively cheap.
But it doesn’t work well for metals. Yet. There are a number of manufacturers who have demonstrated metal printing technology like Direct Metal Laser Sintering. Several processes have been demonstrated for making metal parts from relatively difficult materials like stainless steel and even titanium. Today these machines are very expensive and slow. If they follow along the lines of the plastics, a major drop in prices will change the world of manufacturing forever.
The basic economics of metalworking has been material removal. What if that changes? What if an engine block for a car can be “grown” in 3D and post machined on the wear surfaces and tapped for threads in blind holes that are already present? No matter how complex the internal geometry, the block can be produced as a native single piece of metal with almost no waste. Surface finish machining can be done much more accurately and quickly. At some point the additive process could displace a lot of machining.
Can we create the cost effective manufacturing of the future? (to be continued)