With the latest combinations of hardware, software and materials, adoption of AM technology in manufacturing seems inevitable. Photo by 3D Systems.
There are four tactical paths to deploying Additive Manufacturing into your design, production and delivery process. Here is how you can do it.
When Additive Manufacturing (AM) – also known as 3D printing – was first introduced in the 1980s, it was the stuff of science fiction and fantasy and Hollywood pictured its variants subsequently in movies ranging from Darkman to The Fifth Element and Jurassic Park.
During the Industrial Revolution of the late 1700s, artisan production was replaced by large-scale factory production requiring huge investments to make and sell large quantities of products.
AM technologies has disrupted that model and replaced it with something faster, more economic and versatile. What’s more important, these technologies are in use today.
The reality of Additive Manufacturing or AM incorporates some balance of views held by enthusiasts, skeptics and critics who variously tout or deride this.
Lower capital, greater scope
Since then, AM has broken existing performance trade-offs and expanded the realm of possibility in two fundamental ways. First, AM reduces the capital required to achieve scale economies. Second, its flexibility decreases the capital required to achieve scope economies.
With AM, the minimum efficient scale – the point at which the average cost of each unit of production is minimised – can be as low as one. Production facilities are small and without moulding and tooling costs, the traditional relationship between investment and production no longer holds true – minimum efficient scale is reduced.
The impact of AM on the economy of scope may exceed their impact on scale. AM is extremely versatile in outputting different product configurations with reduced changeover time and cost. Unit costs fall as the number of products that can be made by the same invested capital increases.
These distinct advantages have allowed large, centralised manufactories to be dispersed into many smaller “microfactories”, enabling products to be manufactured close to their markets and reducing transport costs.
Changing the capital-vs-scale relationship can influence product designs and improve the configuration of supply chains. These can enable companies to choose from four tactical paths to deploy AM across their businesses:
Path I: Explore AM technologies to improve value delivery for current products within existing supply chains.
Path II: Take advantage AM scale economics to help transform supply chains for their products.
Path III: Take advantage of AM economies of scope to enable new levels of performance in the products they offer.
Path IV: Alter supply chains and products to create new business models.
Additive Manufacturing has become a game changer in many arenas, including aerospace, defence, architecture, medical, consumer and industrial products. This article essays to address its role in three major arenas: product design, tooling and the automotive industry.
A plus for product design
In the field of product design and development (PDD), AM value adds to rapid prototyping (RP) and the concept of digitally optimal design (DOD).
In the past 30-over years, AM has always been associated with rapid prototyping. Today, rapid prototyping can accelerate the development process without necessarily considering how the technology can be incorporated into final-part production.
In Digital Optimal Design, products are developed specifically for end use on AM systems. DOD also allows cheap and easy product redesign, using non-traditional sources of design information, such as 3D scanning. As such, DOD can create breakthrough products that are only possible or practical because they are both designed and produced with AM.
There is a shift from using AM for only prototyping to production use. Early adopters of AM for design to support traditional manufacturing were mainly aerospace and automotive industries.
Today, the use of AM in PDD has grown beyond manufacturing giants. This shift is due to the melding and synergy of hardware, software and materials. “It’s hard to differentiate them now,” says technology futurist Jordan Brandt of Autodesk, “To innovate in one, you have to innovate all three.”
By saving time, reducing costs and enhancing product quality and design, further adoption of AM technology in this capacity seems inevitable.
The economics of Additive Manufacturing can include products, supply chains and even customer experience. With the cost of complexity reduced, companies can develop a more holistic view of their customers. The expanded economic scope of AM may encourage companies to capture value from all steps in their supply chains.
Design and prototype for full AM production
Replacing traditional manufacturing with AM frees it from traditional constraints of both design and manufacturing. Mass customisation allowed Disney to print one-off products for their customers while medical and dental device companies could print individual customer specifications.
3D printing allows complex parts to be printed whole – already assembled – decreasing system complexity without adding to cost and without material waste.
With reduced design constraints, design and manufacturing can occur virtually anywhere near their customers, saving on logistics, storage and transportation. Freed from mould and tooling constraints, designs can be changed or improved at any time.
With production-on-demand, AM frees manufacturers from minimum batch sizes and material waste can be reduced to a minimum.
While adopting AM, companies need to have designers with greater expertise and at the same time, prepare for a decrease in experience and training requirements – opening an entry for non-professionals and automation.
Today, the 3D design hobbyist may well design a product fit for commercial purposes. With scanning and electronic data sources, new designs can be output even more quickly. Companies can incorporate much higher customer involvement in design, prototyping and testing as well as customization and modifications even at the point of production. This is a trend that will continue to grow.
More torque for automobiles
The automotive industry is using Path I of the four available tactical paths, using AM technologies to improve value delivery for current products within existing supply chains.
AM is helping them to produce multiple variations of products at little additional cost, rapidly creating physical prototypes with touch and feel qualities, until the best design is chosen.
GM for example, uses Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) and Stereolithography (SLA) widely in its design and preproduction processes, producing test models of more than 20,000 components.
BMW on the other hand, uses AM in direct manufacturing to make hand tools used for testing and assembly, helping the company save some 58 percent in overall costs and reducing project time by up to 92 percent.
Tooling can make up a big cost when auto designers change and improve their designs; fortunately, using AM prototypes can reduce dependence on tooling and casting. For the Ford company, bypassing traditional prototyping of an engine manifold can – and did – cut down costs from US$500,000 to US$3,000, and time from four months to just four days!
While most automakers are following the first and ‘least disruptive’ path towards AM deployment, there is room for the industry to follow a total business evolution: Altering supply chains and products to create new business models (Path IV in this article.)
Meanwhile, major improvements have been made with lowering the weight of automobiles. Leading to highly improved fuel efficiency. Lighter materials such as aluminium and carbon fibre, combined with complex designs such as lattices can cut car weight and increase fuel economy. The 2015 Ford F-150 is a good example of this, with a weight reduction of around 317kg or 700 pounds. New composite and nanomaterials are being introduced to AM continuously, so performance can only improve.
One constraint that AM faces though is that its processes give a surface finish of 10-100microns, generally not considered to be in the high precision range. Most components manufactured this way require post-processing and this is one area that needs to be improved. Hybrid manufacturing – combining 3D printing with milling and forging – may be a viable answer.
Additive Manufacturing is traditionally characterised by low production speeds and short production runs. Considering that the automotive industry’s profitability is driven by high volumes, this is a challenge that still needs to be overcome.
Small build areas in 3D printing machines is also an impediment to the production of large parts like body panels, and while some achievements have been made in the use of plastics, the production of large-size metal panels through direct AM seems not to be developing fast enough. This does not address the automotive industry’s need for speed and volume.
And as AM products cannot be copyrighted but only patented based on obvious differentiation, intellectual property rights and theft are looming challenges that will have to be addressed in time.
Meanwhile, there is a big shortage of AM-specific talent. CAD designers have to add new skills to their arsenal: AM machine making, operation and maintenance; raw material preparation and management; analysis of finishing; supply chain and project management.
There is a greater need for formal and extensive training in academic institutions, AM service providers and end-user industries to produce a capable and stable workforce.
There are opportunities for designers, manufacturers and automakers to form alliances with service bureaus, universities and polytechnics to accelerate the new industrial revolution.