22 March 2013 16:50 [Source: ICB]
Imagine a car with a frame that was built by depositing thin layers of composite material until they are fused into a solid, or a robot with parts that were made by a special machine that makes three-dimensional "prints". How about prosthetics or implants created with such precision that they can be customised for each individual?
Stratasys equipment can create customised pieces such as this turbine
Additive manufacturing is the process of joining materials, usually layer upon layer, to make objects from 3D model data, typically by using computer-aided design (CAD) software.
It is a rapidly growing industry with a compound annual growth rate of 29.4% in 2011, according to Wohlers Associates, a consulting firm that specialises in additive manufacturing. Associate consultant Tim Caffrey said the firm does not have 2012 figures, but the additive manufacturing industry sold more than $1.7bn (€1.3bn) in products and services in 2011.
3D printing is changing the way products are designed and manufactured, particularly through traditional subtractive methodologies, Wohlers Associates said.
"It's better for the environment because it reduces waste," said Jeff DeGrange, vice president of Stratasys, which owns an industrial line of 3D printers.
"With additive manufacturing, you only use as much material as you need for the part you're printing," DeGrange said. "But with machining, you're shaping objects by removing material from a larger block until you have the desired form, so there is a good bit of wasted materials."
Additive manufacturing can also save "impressive amounts of time and money" when used correctly, Wohler Associates added.
The concept has been around since 1984 when Charles Hull developed the technology. He later founded 3D Systems, which produced the first commercial 3D printing machine. In 1988, the company developed the first version for the general public.
"Prototyping is touchy-feely, and it gives customers a model rather than a complicated engineering design," said Jared Stonecash, an engineer in composites manufacturing and testing at the University of Dayton Research Institute (UDRI) in Ohio. "It's something they can physically put in their hand."
Also, 3D printing allows organisations to create a prototype without the investment in the tooling equipment used to create the model.
"Once the investment is made, it is very difficult and very expensive to make design changes to the model," Stonecash added. "3D printing is a much simpler, much easier way to fine-tune your parts by 3 degrees or raise the ceiling by an inch."
But 3D printing technology has come a long way from its early days of making models and prototypes.
"In this next horizon, providers are enabling engineers to design parts on their computer and then create the physical part using the same digital data," said Thomas Hughes, program director for open innovation at PolyOne, a formulator and provider of specialised polymer materials.
"Instead of merely printing a picture of the design, they are able to 'print' an actual production part for use in an automobile, jet engine, operating room or other application," Hughes said. "Another option is to 'print' the tooling required to mass-produce parts."
The additive manufacturing industry is already advancing in leaps and bounds, but companies and research centres are exploring new innovations and applications to progress the technology even further.
UDRI is trying to find a specialised material that can be used to "print" an actual working part that would be installed in a new aircraft engine.
In July 2012, UDRI was awarded a $3m grant from state technology-based economic development programme Ohio Third Frontier. It will work with several other companies to develop aircraft engine components, as well as other parts in the aerospace and automotive industries.
"What we're looking to do is change or modify these polymer feedstock materials," Stonecash said. "I have a very limited range in type of materials used for rapid prototyping. For example, with ABS, you want to touch and feel it, but you don't want to drop it.
"Now that they have gotten better with this technology, they can use different types of materials - stronger plastics that melt at higher temperatures - and you can use it for something rather than just a model," he added.
PolyOne will "scale up" the polymer feedstock and develop engineering materials that can be used to create prototypes and production parts.
The company currently sells resin formulations and colour additives for producing prototype parts for polycarbonates, ABS and polylactic acid applications.
"We are now moving toward the production of engineering polymers to be used in the production of manufactured parts," Hughes said. "Resin formulations being developed include nylons [polyamide], high-temperature polymers like PEEK [polyetheretherketone], polyetherimides [PEI] and polyimides [PI]."
In addition, Stratasys will integrate the new material into its additive manufacturing systems, and Rapid Prototype Plus Manufacturing (RP+M) will handle the manufacturing.
"The push behind this is with the materials that can be used for parts in the aerospace industry. You lose a lot of money to create a $20,000 tool to make a couple of hundred parts," said Patrick Gannon, a spokesman for RP+M. "From that perspective, it doesn't make any sense. If we can find a material [that can be used in 3D], we have a huge market out there for companies that are looking for that sort of thing."
Additive manufacturing recently made headlines when US President Barack Obama mentioned it in his state of the union address on 12 February. He said it is a priority to make the US a magnet for new jobs and manufacturing.
The National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute (NAMII) is a pilot centre established in August 2012 in Youngstown, Ohio, to accelerate such technologies in the US and increase domestic manufacturing competition.
The NAMII is the first of up to 15 institutes in the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation (NNMI), a $1bn initiative announced by Obama in March 2012 that will help integrate capabilities, focus enterprise and address challenges in advanced manufacturing.
"A once-shuttered warehouse is now a state-of-the-art lab, where new workers are mastering the 3D printing that has the potential to revolutionise the way we make almost everything," Obama said his state of the union address.
The industry is expected to continue to grow very quickly, Caffrey said. "We try to be relatively conservative in our forecast, but the sale of products and services worldwide is expected to grow to $3.7bn in 2015," he said. "In 2019, the industry will be over $6bn."
Caffrey added that the personal 3D printer business, which includes systems under $5,000, has been growing at a very fast pace, possibly increasing by more than three times in 2011.
"The personal 3D printers are only 5% of total revenues," Caffrey said. "So in the last five years, it has gone from almost nonexistent to being quite large."
The availability of these systems, for both industrial and personal uses, allows just about anyone to create their own model or product.
"If you can design something, you can build it - there's no additional cost in complexity," Caffrey said. "With 3D printing, making a single custom product is no more expensive per unit than making 10 or 100."
While it is now possible to make a million car frames or plastic cups using a 3D printer, Caffrey said it will more likely be used in applications that require customisation, such as personalised jewellery and promotional products or even medical implants and prosthetics.
However, it could also be used for mass production - in hundreds as opposed to millions - of more expensive parts such as aerospace components.
"There are some novel downstream benefits from that concept, like making lightweight parts for airplanes, where you can take a lot of weight off and save a ton of money in fuel," Caffrey said. "Several things like that you can't do with conventional manufacturing."
Whatever the customer intends to make, whether it is a plastic product intended for use in the home or a small production line of automobile parts, the possibilities are endless.
"We like to use the analogy that 20-30 years ago, there weren't any [personal computers] and no Internet," Caffrey said. "Yet, here we are. We have smart phones and have little electronic devices that play movies in colour."
"With 3D printing, we don't necessarily know where it's going and what the next application is going to be," he added. "But the modifications are going to grow, and new applications will be developed."
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