The world of additive manufacturing - or 3D printing – seems to be coming whether manufacturers embrace it or not. How they choose to embrace it, however, will determine exactly how influential this technology can be. Mike Adams, CEO at additive manufacturing firm HiETA Technologies explains.
From its origins in the early 1980’s additive manufacturing (AM) or 3D printing has grown into the next overnight sensation. There is a variety of processes but with the same principle – a product is “grown”, layer by layer, using a 3D digital model, hence the more common description 3D printing. It allows greater degrees of design freedom and from those early days working only in polymers, it has now moved on with the build material including ceramics, metals and composites.
AM has been successfully used to shorten the development life cycle by providing a rapid prototyping service for prototype parts and in the support of traditional manufacturing by producing molds, tooling and even packaging. In recent years AM has started moving into mainstream manufacturing, specifically in dental and medical fields producing dental crowns, copings and bridges. ASDA is even rolling out 3D printing into some of its stores.
2013 could be considered a good year for the additive manufacturing industry. Substantial investment through the Technology Strategy Board (TSB) and other government agencies has pushed it towards full commercialisation. A lot of the investment has gone into SMEs, encouraging burgeoning entrepreneurs. There has been a constant stream of publicity within business press and social reporting driven by progress in the hobbyist and open source communities as much as by mainstream manufacturing. As an example, at the CES exhibition in 2013 there were three machines on display. A year later there were 30.
This may seem insignificant, but it is creating an eco-system of innovation and development for a new generation of young engineers. Supporting tools (such as 3D scanners) and software are being developed alongside consumer AM machines and materials. This innovation is being developed including intellectual property (IP) protection capability as well as open source builder and development communities. Just as important, particularly for the UK, is that it is bringing design and manufacturing skills back to the next generation of engineers.
Significantly for manufacturers, 2013 brought other key announcements that have shown increasing confidence in the process. GE announced that part of their £3.5bn supply chain will use AM to produce 85,000 units for their new Leap engine. The trend has continued in 2014 with the announcement of £30m to be invested in AM and the Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC) in Coventry. Aerospace has long been one of the biggest users of the technology, with BAE Systems announcing it is already flying metallic AM parts on its aircraft. AM parts are also moving into the automotive sector.
Ultimately AM is a manufacturing technology and its success will come from combining its design opportunities with the reality of its production capability and the demands of its customers. It will fit into the manufacturer’s toolbox in association with existing and emerging processes. It will also drive existing processes and companies to up their game. It will nevertheless still need solid implementation of the manufacturer’s credos of quality, cost, performance and durability to deliver the proposed benefits.
Successful exploitation will still require great design skill, knowledge, delivery capability and experience. The challenge for manufacturers is how to acquire such gold dust.
HiETA are sponsoring the Future Factory: 3D printing and Additive Manufacturing Conference on 11th June, 2014. The event will be part of the Future Factory series of events running this year which are free to attend for subscribers of The Manufacturer. Subscribe now for just £95.