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Is Additive Manufacturing The Right Fit For Your Company?

Posted by Carrie Pittman

what is additive manufacturingWritten by: John Anderson, Director

What if you could virtually eliminate scrap from a metal fabricating process? 

What if you could create a physical prototype of a new design in minutes?

What if you could model various design iterations and, with the touch of button, fabricate each one for testing? 

What if I told you that the technology exists to do all these things and more?  It does, with the use of additive manufacturing, or 3D printing processes. 

Many of you may have heard these terms on Twitter or on the Internet.  Your kids may even have 3D printers in their school classrooms.  However, we at CMTC find that there is still much misunderstanding about the additive manufacturing process and its role in manufacturing.  This article will discuss the definition of additive manufacturing and introduce some basic concepts; explain how additive manufacturing is incorporated into manufacturing operations; and the outline the change in mindset that must happen to maximize the use and benefits of additive manufacturing. 

What is Additive Manufacturing?

The ASTM International Committee F42 on Additive Manufacturing Technologies defines additive manufacturing as “the process of joining materials to make objects from 3D model data, usually layer upon layer, as opposed to subtractive manufacturing methods”.  In other words, instead of removing material during the production process to make part features such as holes, the part would be constructed using additive manufacturing methods with the hole already formed in the finished part.  

The process is really very basic.  You design the part on 3D modeling software. To be printed, the file must be saved as an  .AMF or .STL file (which means that you may need to purchase software that allows you to save it in one of these formats).  You then simply send the file to the printer just like you would a document.  The printer then fabricates the part on your drawing using the deposition of material from a print head or nozzle. 

Additive manufacturing has been used to build physical models, prototypes, tooling components and production parts in a variety of medias, including metal, plastic, and composite materials.  Almost any shape can be replicated on a 3D printer, and parts can be manufactured in a variety of colors and even with more than one material.  The latter is often useful for improving part or tool wear or heat resistant characteristics. 

Even though additive manufacturing has been around since the 1970’s, the growth in use and commercialization of the technology has exploded in the last five years.  Printers have gotten faster, cheaper and more compact.  The selection of fabrication materials has increased as has the number of situations in which additive manufacturing has been used. 

Consider the following examples:

  • Ford Motor Company now puts a 3D printer on the desk of every engineer that requests one.
  • Three 18-piece scaled plastic “body doubles” of James Bond’s car were produced using 3D printing for the movie Skyfall
  • Custom prosthetics are now being manufactured using medical scans.  It is possible that, in the next five years, functioning human organs may be able to be produced from 3D printing technology!

How Do Manufacturers Incorporate Additive Manufacturing Into Their Processes?

That all sounds good, but how can you as a manufacturer use the additive manufacturing technology to increase your market share and revenues?  There are many ways to do so:

  • Enhancing tooling performance.  Using additive manufacturing, you can either apply a material as a tooling coating to improve performance or create features such as cooling channels in the tool itself.  
  • Rapid prototyping.  If your business is in a quickly changing industry, you need to be able to rapidly adapt.  Additive manufacturing is widely used to create functional models of new designs in minutes.  The models can be used for testing the designs or evaluating fit with other components.  This allows for quick feedback during the design process. 
  • Design communication. Architecture is one example of an industry where models are the preferred method of communicating and showcasing design concepts.   Imagine the power of being able to transfer a design from the computer screen to an actual scaled model with the touch of a button as opposed to spending hours manually constructing the same model!
  • Quick manufacturing of low volume, small parts.  In the past, manufacturing items such as custom hearing aids and dolls that resemble a person was a nightmare for manufacturers.  Tooling development and set up time and the associated costs were astronomical, particularly when amortized over a very small volume.  With additive manufacturing, you simply import a 3D picture of a person or a design based on a medical scan, and you can produce one or ten units at a relative low cost with faster turnaround. 

The key for successful incorporation of additive manufacturing into your production processes is to identify the areas where 3D printing can enhance your offerings and make you more competitive.  A value stream or process map, which we at CMTC can help you develop, can provide a basis for this analysis.

The Mindset Change Associated With Additive Manufacturing

While additive manufacturing is a powerful tool for manufacturers, the effective use of additive manufacturing requires a change in mindset for design engineers and company managers.  Additive manufacturing goes against many of the principals that most design, mechanical and industrial engineers learn in school. 

For example, traditionally, sheets of metal have traditionally been used as raw material for a metal fabrication process. These sheets are laser cut to produce a shape.  The job of design engineers has been to order the right size of steel sheet and design the program to optimize the nesting of parts within that sheet to minimize scrap.  The less steel taken away, the lower the scrap costs and the higher the profits. 

In the case of additive manufacturing, instead of focusing on reducing the amount of material removed from a process, you build a product up, adding material where needed or taking it away in the design phase to produce a part.  So, instead of cutting a shape out of a sheet of steel, you build up the same part using a 3D printer.  If you don’t like the shape or features, simply change the model and print another one!  Once you have a design that you like, you can print off as many copies as you need. 

As you can see, the design mindset is flipped on its ear when additive manufacturing is involved.  The considerations shift from reducing the amount of material taken away to optimizing the part design and then building a part, one by one. 

So, how do you train your design engineers to work with 3D printing technologies and develop the new mindset required to do so? 

Here are some simple and relatively inexpensive ways to do so:

  • Learn.  Many universities and community colleges have developed additive manufacturing programs.  These can range from degree specializations and certificate programs to additive manufacturing workshops and seminars.  Additive manufacturing events, such as CMTC’s Additive Manufacturing Forum, being held in June, also provide opportunities for engineers and company managers to learn more about the technology. 
  • Read.  Magazines, such as Make Magazine, are now being published to showcase examples of 3D materials and provide comparisons between printer models so you can select the right one for your company.  The internet also contains a wealth of data on additive manufacturing and 3D printing.  CMTC’s website has a whole section devoted to additive manufacturing information and resources.  
  • Network.  Ask around.  Find local manufacturers who are using 3D printing.  Learn how they are using it.  Manufacturers networks, the local chamber of commerce, and events such as the one described above are places where you may be able to find others using the technology. 
  • Experiment.  The cost of personal and desktop 3D printers has gone down dramatically as more models are introduced and competition increases in this market.  A desktop mini-printer can be purchased for as little as $500.  If you are considering incorporating additive manufacturing into your operations, purchase one or a few and provide them to your engineers, as Ford Motor Company does.  There is no better way to learn about the technology and change the mindset than by letting the designers and engineers play with the technology. 

New technologies can be scary, but they can also be exciting.  The promise of additive manufacturing in the next five years is mind-boggling, from production of custom, functioning prostheses to the use of 3D printing in the majority of elementary school classrooms and homes. 


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Topics: Additive Manufacturing, 3D Printing

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