The buzz of additive manufacturing continues to make headlines. Additive manufacturing permits the fabrication of complex plastic and metal parts by starting with powdered materials. There are no cutting tools involved, very little waste and production time is in hours, not weeks, regardless of the complexity of the part.
There are many variants of the process depending on the chemistry involved. Some of the high precision plastic parts are still made using photopolymers that cure when a laser is focused on the material. Generally these parts are made to evaluate fit and function and are not very high strength.
Within the plastics there are more structural materials available made from nylons mixed with chopped glass fiber. These materials have more structural and can be tuned to a variety requirements. The process starts with powdered materials that are heated within a few degrees of their melt point, and then selectively heated to their melt point by using focused lasers.
The field of additive manufacturing has exploded with stainless steel alloys, titanium alloys and high strength exotics like Inconel. The processes are essentially the same yielding impossibly complex parts with no machining required.
The major impact of these processes has been to reduce the cost of prototyping and the ability to produce complex parts that may be otherwise impossible to produce with traditional machining methods. Process times are still counted in hours which will greatly reduce new product development cycles. The cost benefit of this approach can be in the millions of dollars for high end medical and oil & gas projects.
The difficulty with additive manufacturing is the extreme cost of the machinery. The amortization cost prevents AM from becoming a mainstream option to traditional methods. Additionally, AM has an extremely high energy cost. All of the material in a large rectangular volume must be heated and kept at temperature while the process is running.
So there is a tremendous effort to lower machinery costs and find room temperature processes that will yield good results. And there is much success in this arena. Research teams all over the US and the world are pursuing techniques that show incredible promise.
The future is bright, and getting brighter for Addiive Manufacturing.