Is Additive Manufacturing ready to scale?
General Electric’s late-2106 purchase of two large additive manufacturing (AM) equipment suppliers signaled that the 3D printing market has shifted for a second time. The first shift came around 2008 as original patents to underlying technology started to expire, prices for simple 3D printers collapsed, and more potential users (companies and individuals) gained access to the tools. Now, with major manufacturers understanding and acting on the strategic importance of the technology, the age of AM as a production technology has well and truly arrived, particularly for industries such as health care, aviation, and aerospace.
While GE’s initial use of AM to produce sensor housings and fuel injection nozzles signaled the opportunity, the company’s recent announcements are transformative: The 35 percent of GE’s first turboprop engine that is 3D-printed reduces what was formerly 755 parts to 17, enabling GE’s entry into that engine market. Meanwhile, Invisalign built on another benefit of the technology–customization–to produce dental braces, making it the first $1 billion additive-enabled company. Medical device manufacturers including Zimmer, Stryker, Johnson & Johnson, and others are following suit by investing heavily in metal spine, hip, knee, and other implants. Meanwhile, SpaceX expects that its ratio of additively manufactured components to traditionally tooled parts soon will be 2:1.
Each of these applications brings benefits that traditional tools, still often an order of magnitude cheaper than AM, cannot provide. Whether through customization, light-weighting, part-count reduction, or pure processing capability, these AM-produced parts are paying their own way. While doing so each bears witness to an evolution in AM materials, processes, or machines that is reducing cost and improving performance to the point where other industries and use cases seem plausible. Already, major manufacturers and users, from Caterpillar to Deutsche Bahn, are exploring and deploying AM for spare parts. Automotive original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) also are embracing the technology; Renault recently presented its first fully 3D-printed engine block.
There is much more to do–despite the market entry of BASF, Dow, and others, the range of materials (900+ at last count) remains low and poorly characterized compared to traditional tools. And while the size of 3D printers has improved–most notably, by using standardized robotic arms as Stratasys or Viridis machines do– it still takes 24+ hours to produce a typical Titanium print.
Solutions are in the works, however. Lawrence Livermore Lab published a paper on multi-array diode laser printing; the new technology improves metal printing cost and speed 10-100x. It is now being commercialized, as is culturing and “printing” biological materials. Software is aiding the additive process too: increasing deployment of generative design tools and AM-focused simulation packages helps engineers make the most of the evolving technology and prevent build failure.
Connecting AM tools to machines and everyday Internet of Things (IoT) sources is the next step in creating a fully digital idea-to-part value chain; one in which designs are created automatically based on the data that surrounds us, and processes are seamlessly executed in the most efficient way possible. By doing this, AM is demonstrating the applied use of Industry 4.0 approaches to other manufacturing sectors, which may end up being its most impactful contribution.
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