The terms “additive manufacturing” and “3D printing” are used interchangeably, although it seems additive manufacturing suggests an industrial context whereas 3D printing has become so widespread that it could be considered a consumer technology now.
The majority of those who use such processes are, however, makers or manufacturers, meaning they’re on the supply side of the economy rather than the demand side.
Perhaps the reason why 3D printers are not yet completely in the consumer domain is that they’re not totally perfect. The high-end machines can probably get close to perfection, but not at a price point which can unlock consumer markets.
The finish on a 3D printed material is often not as smooth as what can be achieved through injection moulding, which is traditional and still-widely used method of manufacturing.
Also, the materials that can be used in 3D printing was initially limited to soft plastics, although that is changing all the time.
Metals can be used in high-end 3D printing systems that only large, industrial companies can afford.
And though the process still does not deliver the high-quality finish that traditional manufacturing processes can, 3D printing has become essential to most rapid prototyping operations.
A new strata of existence
One of the leading suppliers of high-end 3D printing systems – which can cost tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars – is Stratasys.
It’s the company of choice for corporate partners such as engineering giant Siemens, and Dassault Systèmes, one of the leading providers of engineering design software.
Stratasys machines are said to be able to 3D print objects using a variety of metals including steel, which is one of the most difficult materials to work with, and has a very high melting point of 2,500ºF.
A detailed description of how a 3D printer works is beyond the scope of this article, but most people are probably aware that 3D printers work by depositing layer after layer of soft material which is subsequently solidified through drying.
Suffice to say that converting a tough material such as steel into a malleable form and then drying is not an easy process for a 3D printer.
However, the fields of materials science and 3D printing technologies are making progress all the time, and it’s probably just a matter of time before the additive manufacturing process can produce objects of a very high-quality finish using materials as strong as, or even stronger than, steel.
Form follows function
One of the most well-known exhibitions in the additive manufacturing industry in Europe is FormNext, this year scheduled to be held from 14th to 17th November, in Frankfurt.
Although FormNext – which prefers to write its names in lower case, as in “formnext” – deals with the wider industry of manufacturing, its main interest is 3D printing or additive manufacturing.
As the organisers say, FormNext features the latest developments in additive manufacturing and how they complement and interact with conventional technologies.
The idea is to uncover new potential in the entire manufacturing process, from design to serial production.
Going back to the earlier point, the central challenge seems to be how to improve the quality of the finish of 3D printed materials enough to make them comparable to any others found in the consumer market, which have almost certainly gone through at least one traditional manufacturing process such as injection moulding, and probably not been 3D printed.
Nonetheless, additive manufacturing – as mentioned earlier – is hugely popular, and at least some of the products that come out of the process do end up in the market.
Such 3D printed products tend to be ones which are hidden from view. For example, internal components of a storage system, or enclosures for circuitry or other components which are not generally accessible.
Mass customisation through 3D printing
One of the main attractions of 3D printing is that it holds the promise of mass customisation.
The variety of materials that can be used, the range of colours and configurations that would be possible through 3D printing – not to mention the flexible manufacturing process through which an individual order can be delivered at high speed at a lower cost overall – would all be necessary features of a mass customisation operation.
These features are probably not there yet, and the inherent slowness of producing individualised items would obviously not be able to compete with the long-established, high-speed mass manufacturing techniques of today.
While this may seem some years away, Stratasys claims it plans to showcase new technologies at FormNext will enable “volume production and mass customisation”.
The company plans to showcase its newest development solution, the Continuous Build 3D Demonstrator.
The new solution is described as a “multi-cell, scalable architecture-based platform is designed to extend beyond the one operator – one 3D printer paradigm; with only minor operator intervention, parts are produced in a continuous stream that sees completed parts automatically ejected and new ones started”.
Stratasys adds that the Continuous Build 3D is engineered for organizations who need continuous production capability, customized plastic parts without tooling, or just-in-time inventory and distributed manufacturing for improved supply chain efficiency.
The company is partnering with Siemens for FormNext, and they will present how the mobility business unit of the engineering giant is customising low-volume production with additive manufacturing.
The main 3D printer Stratasys wants to show off is its J750, which the company says is capable of “full color, multi-material 3D printing”.
Materials science, as suggested earlier, is probably one of the most dynamic fields of research at the moment, largely because of what many believe is the commercial possibilities of 3D printing.
While steel and other traditional materials may pose challenges, there may be newly created composites – that may be just as tough, soft, durable, ephemeral or whatever – which could provide the solutions.
Ceramics is one area many companies are looking into.
Most people might think of ceramics as being fragile, brittle and having a tendency to break easily, probably because they tend to be used as kitchenware or art objects.
But ceramics in the 3D printing world is actually superstrong and can withstand temperature exceeding 2,000º or more.
So impressive are the new ceramics that General Electric is using them to make parts for plane engines.
GE is using ceramic matrix composites coated with a “very highly proprietary coating”. The result is “tough like a metal [but] not brittle like a ceramic,” GE Aviation engineer Sanjay Correa, who adds that “we’re running out of headroom in metals”.
GE says that the ceramics it is using are one-third the weight of metal and don’t need to be air-cooled, which allows designers to build lighter and more efficient engines.
The company has already conducted test flights of 737 planes which use ceramic matrix composites.
The engines made through such new processes are called Leap, and they are the result of a 50-50 joint venture between GE Aviation and Safran Aircraft Engines of France.
The companies last year claimed there had, by then, been “more than 10,800 orders and commitments for the engines valued at more than $150 billion” at list price.
Correa says: “We expect a 10-fold increase in demand for CMCs when these and other engines take off by the end of 2020.”
Another of the companies which will be exhibiting at FormNext is XJet, which claims to have developed “the world’s first direct 3D metal and ceramic jetting system”.
XJet says utilises a proprietary and “pioneering” process called “nanoparticle jetting”.
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