3D Printing: a mature industrial market
3D Printing (3DP) is defined as the process of joining materials to make objects from 3D CAD model data, usually layer upon layer, as opposed to subtractive manufacturing methodologies.
The technology has been around since mid of the 80’s first with polymer technologies such as Stereolithography (SLA) then Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) and progressively, other technologies have emerged enabling the 3D printing of metals and ceramics in late of the 90’s. Today, there are over 30 different 3D Printing systems existing on the market.
The mature industrial markets are using it for:
- academic research
The home-professionals or hobbyists are mainly using the plastic extrusion technology where the hype was at its highest thanks to all the media attention that started in 2012. This illusion that “anything” and “everything” could be printed has boosted the acquisition of these affordable desktop printers a lot, yet in 2015, a lot of hobbyists and even small companies face issues to use them correctly or find a return on investment for these.
The technology was first meant to serve the prototyping phases within the manufacturing companies in 1980-1990. Being able to rapidly design and produce a prototype before its mass production is a real advantage. Not only does it serve the marketing department to decide between several complex geometrical choices (for example) but it is also very useful to rapidly check if the design is suited for the manufacturing process. One example would be in the injection moulding sector where a mould can be highly expensive. Building a prototype with that technology is very expensive. 3D Printing enables prototypes and finished parts to be built very rapidly and for a lot less compared to other production technologies.
But 3DP has evolved a lot and it is sometimes tricky to forward the right message to the industry. It has been mostly known for being only a prototyping technology in the past. With the media coverage and hype in 2012, most of the engineers know 3DP only for its plastic extrusion technologies (Fused Deposition Modelling – FDM) that are very inaccurate, dangerous for their toxic fumes and where you need to spend a lot of time on removing the support structures.
Next to the medical and prototyping sectors lies the space, tooling and military applications for non-critical parts (no long mechanical fatigue cycles). Titanium and Aluminium are the most studied and released materials. Next to the metals, polymers such as polyamide are real cash cows for a service providers. It will be within our strategy to follow these sectors, materials and applications.
Around the world, additive manufacturing (AM) is changing the way organizations design and manufacture products. When used correctly, it can save impressive amounts of time and money. Companies claim that AM has helped trim weeks (even months!) of designing, prototyping and manufacturing while avoiding costly errors and enhancing product quality.
The use of 3DP technologies within the metal sector offers entire new perspectives and possibilities for existing markets but also creates needs and new niche markets that were not existing before. What 3DP can bring is the possibility to design and manufacture highly complex parts. Exploiting the design complexity to its maximum and redesigning parts towards 3DP specifications towards of materials and processes is the real driver and added value of those technologies.
This example demonstrates that a re-designed of an existing part for the aircraft industry. The original design leads to a part that has a weight of 155g. With AM it is possible to reduce it to 70g leading to an economy of 72.5Kg per aircraft meaning that 2 billion Euros in fuel can be save over the lifetime of the aircraft.
From a manufacturing point of view the price does not grow with a growing complexity of a part. This might be true for conventional manufacturing technologies such as injection moulding, casting forging or even milling but not for 3DP technologies. From a design point of view, this could add more time thus more costs since the complexity consists in the design of the parts. With 3DP technologies, it is even possible to produce different parts at once within the same build tank. Thus, a company receiving parts coming from entirely different sectors could print them at the same time if the material is the same and if the build size envelope allows it.
3DP has grown from a prototyping technology to a mature serial production technology with applications in high-tech sectors (medical, aerospace, automotive and others) for metals, polymers and ceramics. The B2C sector has rapidly evolved in the last 5 years and has attracted a lot of home-professionals.