The adoption of additive manufacturing has gained momentum in recent years to become a prominent part of industrial engineering and manufacturing workflows. From biomedical applications to fashion and consumer goods, products manufactured using 3D Printer are becoming popular with both manufacturers as well as consumers.
Some of the key advantages of the technology for the production of prototypes and single parts are flexibility, cost, and speed. However, additive manufacturing is not limited to just prototyping today. Companies are exploring and investing in this technology for series production as well. Research in additive manufacturing processes and materials continues to be intense with innovations impacting multiple Industries. Today, besides the traditional mobility industry (of Automotive, Aerospace and Rail), construction, fashion, pharmaceutical and life sciences all see additive manufacturing as a major trend.
Additive manufacturing generates parts in a 3D printer through a layer-by-layer “addition” of material based on digital construction data. The materials currently used in a 3D printer are special plastics, metals, ceramics, synthetic resins and even living cells. A key advantage of the additive manufacturing is the ability to create complex shapes and have sophisticated internal structures resulting in a lower overall weight and reduced material usage.
Optimized parts, reduced weight
The aerospace Industry has been actively pursuing additive manufacturing, given the Industry’s emphasis on weight reduction. The additive process results in substantial material savings as less material is used and material waste (compared to a subtractive process) is reduced. Reduced total weight also has a direct effect on the fuel consumption of an aircraft in the air, resulting in better environmental compatibility.
Since additive manufacturing allows for complex shapes, the functional requirements of the part can be used to derive an optimal shape. Generative design uses automated shape design in modeling industrial components, drawing on pre-defined parameters that meet mechanical requirements and fit smoothly with other components. This automated process produces a unique, lightweight three-dimensional shape that offers extremely high performance and can only be made using 3D printing.
In the past few years, aircraft OEMs have begun using additive manufacturing and generative design to design and manufacture functional parts for their aircrafts. To fully leverage the advantages of additive manufacturing, the designer must re-design the part keeping in mind the operational and manufacturing requirements. This requires collaboration between designers, analysts and manufacturing personnel.
Cutting material and assembly costs
With the increased focus on sustainability, companies are trying to economize the use (and waste) of materials as much as possible. By leveraging topology optimization and additive manufacturing, companies can focus on harmonizing and improving the use of materials. As seen earlier, additive manufacturing can generate complex shapes with lattice internal structures allowing for light weighting. Further as additive manufacturing builds parts in layers, there is reduced material wastage. By contrast, consider a subtractive process (i.e. conventional manufacturing) where, for example, a metal part is milled from a large block. After manufacturing, leftover material cannot be re-used as is and additional processing would be needed resulting in increased energy consumption.
Additive manufacturing makes it possible to produce whole assemblies in one piece. Given the complicated geometries allowed, some of the parts in the assembly can be combined, resulting in a reduced number of parts. In addition, this also improves the overall manufacture & assembly time, while reducing the possibility of assembly errors. It is important to note that the design rules developed for traditional manufacturing may not always apply here. Instead, product development for additive manufacturing requires a collaboration across design, analysis and manufacturing domains to higher degree than seen for traditional manufacturing. Companies that have been successful with additive manufacturing understand the need to design for additive manufacturing considering the impact of manufacturing, material and process parameters upfront in the design process by leveraging virtual testing.
A US-based manufacturer to the Oil & Gas, aerospace, geotechnical and medical industry produces high-precision part components as well as complicated turnkey assemblies. The company is transforming its business by combining their knowledge and know-how of subtractive and additive manufacturing with the capabilities of our platform. The company uses the platform to simulate models that will be 3D-printed and iron-out problems beforehand, including the prediction of build failures and account for any distortions. Simulating the additive manufacturing process has helped them educate customers about the quality and strength of additive manufactured parts and gain customer confidence and buy-in to 3D print their products.
Flexible response to custom demand
A further advantage of additive manufacturing is the flexible creation of prototypes or single parts, for lower costs compared to conventional manufacturing. This can be leveraged for disruptive business models where spares may be printed on-demand and where products may be personalized for the end-user. The personalization can be a key advantage in healthcare and consumer goods. For instance, a shoe brand started a personalization project combining 3D scanning and 3D printing. In select stores, customers can have their feet measured and configure how a shoe fits. The personalized shoe model is then quickly produced — there and then.
Additive manufacturing also enables flexibility that can benefit any company that manufactures elaborate prototypes or spare parts. The technology helps produce product quickly and flexibly in close collaboration with the customer. If a company generally produces in Europe but needs a spare part in India for instance, it can be easily manufactured through 3D printing on the spot. That not only means more customer proximity, it also helps to cut cost of transportation and logistics.
What does the future hold?
Currently, a major focus in the use of additive manufacturing is in sectors wanting to produce prototypes, custom parts or small series. However, there are also ongoing efforts to establish additive manufacturing in series production.
In the medical sector, intensive research and development are underway, especially on the use of materials. Additive manufacturing is used in designing and making personalized prosthetics and artificial limbs. Biomedical engineering companies can map the patient data from scans and other medical technology, to create artificial limbs that are specific to the patient geometry. Other research projects today in the area of organ reconstruction indicate further potential to assist many persons in the future.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, additive manufacturing has been in the news as individuals, universities, and private organizations have stepped up to contribute to critical shortages of equipment. Additive manufacturing has been used to print test swabs, ventilator values, splitters, personal protective equipment (PPE) and more to help in the fight against the pandemic. The demand is being tackled through 3D printing in two ways.
One, companies that have adopted 3D printing had leveraged this towards manufacturing the critical equipment. Two, individuals who have a 3D printer at home are creating components that can be used by the local hospitals. One of our colleagues, for example, created face-shield frames using a 3D printer that he has at home, and donated them to the local hospital. We are hearing many such stories within India.
Additive manufacturing is a disruptive technology, destined to gain in significance in the near future. It can enable a company to realize competitive advantages by disruptive business models, more agile operation, through innovative product design, flexible manufacturing, and sustained reduction of costs.
The writer is SIMULIA Sales Director, India, Dassault Systemes)