The use of additive manufacturing is growing in high-tech industries. According to the market research firm MarketsandMarkets (M&M), 3D printer production and additive manufacturing outputs grew in value to $3.5 billion in 2017. The leading adopters of additive manufacturing were the medical devices, aerospace and automotive industries.
This is not surprising. In additive manufacturing, the cost of printing a complex shape is the same as a simple design, especially in small quantities.
Medical Devices & Surgery
The advantages of additive manufacturing are a boon for the medical industry. By leveraging additive manufacturing, the medical industry is building highly-custom implants for dental and orthopedic applications. Since additive manufacturing removes the cost of tooling and setting up (required in subtractive manufacturing), physicians need not worry about economies-of-scale when proposing custom implants and prosthetics to the patient.
In addition, additive manufacturing has also enabled manufacturers to produce very complex and highly delicate designs, such joints designed to connect with human bones. To produce these solutions, 3D printers must fabricate minute fractal lattice structures into which bone tissue can fuse, hence providing a strong connection between the implant and bone. There’s no other way to produce such shapes.
Likewise, dental implants and insertions involve both incredible customization and very complex design to achieve a precise fit. There’s considerable precision in the dental implant process. First, it starts with an X-ray of your mouth to examine your bones. Second, the surgeon must drill a hole for the dental implant. However, the surgeon must guarantee that the implant (such as the screw for the implant) is perfectly aligned with how your teeth are arranged. Thanks to 3D printing, dentists are now able to secure custom made implants. These implants and related drilling guides are custom-designed in specialized 3D printing computer aided design (CAD) software then manufactured with a high degree of automation.
For brain surgery, doctors will build a custom fixture following a CT scan of their patient. Like in dental and orthopedics, this involves producing an implant that precisely fits the patient’s skull and guides the surgeon’s tools during the operation. Again, specialized 3D software automated the design of these surgical aids.
Aerospace & Infrastructure
Aerospace has been a trailblazer in adopting additive manufacturing. Recently, its efforts have resulted in a 3D printed part for use on commercial turbofan engines.
The LEAP turbofan engine - a joint-venture of General Electric (GE) and Safran Aircraft Engines - is equipped with 3D printed fuel nozzles. The US Federal Aviation Administration cleared the nozzle for use onboard commercial aircraft in 2015. Not only does this part weigh 25% less than its predecessor on older generation engines, but according to GE, it’s five times more durable.
While providing substantial benefits in fuel-economy and carbon-emission reduction on aircraft equipped with LEAP engines, the 3D printed part also streamlines the production supply chain. 3D printing enabled GE to replace 20 different parts with just one unit. Not only does this simplify the manufacturing process, but it also lowers life-cycle maintenance costs.
The use of 3D CAD and computer aided engineering (CAE) software is an essential piece to the aerospace industry’s design and development efforts. GE leveraged CAD/CAE to undertake the necessary design studies, simulation and analyses to develop the new nozzle and evaluate its viability before proceeding to the prototyping stage.
Imagine the cost savings involved for airlines operating dozens of these aircraft, especially over a 20-plus year period. These are the direct benefits of additive manufacturing, so one can see how its growth in handling other subassemblies and components will extend gains for manufacturers, suppliers and consumers in a multitude of other areas.
Besides optimizing for cost-reduction, 3D printing has also enabled industries to undertake very complex manufacturing. Consider heat exchangers. These devices have a large number of tubes, fines and other inputs for running hot fluid from one side and cold fluid through the other. But its assembly process requires welding the cooling fins and inserting them into a watertight box. It’s a laborious and time-consuming manufacturing process with considerable margin for failure.
But with 3D printing, the heat-exchanger can be manufactured in one consolidated shot. It could take a relatively long period of time to manufacture the one unit, but the end-result is much more reliable. Like LEAP, the objective is to consolidate the number of parts required for assembly in addition to imbuing significant performance improvements.
The Future of Additive Manufacturing
The technologies involved in additive manufacturing are increasing in capability and decreasing in price. Moreover, new additive manufacturing applications are always being found. However, there are still major hurdles in process control and process predictability.
In terms of process control, additive manufacturing lacks industry-wide standards to govern the process of manufacturing raw materials into finished parts. Traditional manufacturing - including subtractive manufacturing - benefit from these standards (e.g. metallurgical behavior during the machining process, stamping or forging). There are industry-standard references for engineers to refer to and consult.
However, the industry has not yet built those standards for additive manufacturing. For example, individual aerospace companies - such as GE - are building proprietary control regimes for their additive manufacturing efforts, while the individual 3D printing supplier lacks control regimes and industry standards entirely. This can best be remedied by standards bodies developing common compliance certifications available for use by everyone, especially smaller manufacturers.
Finally, process predictability is still a major challenge for those using 3D printers. Optimizing the part’s orientation, support material and process parameters require considerable trial-and-error. But this also presents a massive opportunity for those developing the software tools that are used in 3D printing. Physics-based simulation would be a major step forward. Combining this simulation element with machine-specific process information from the 3D printer manufacturers will help manufacturers reduce their error and scrap rates.
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