Posted on Nov 22, 2017

Additive manufacturing (AM) might become synonymous with manufacturing itself sooner than you think.

AM already is no longer a small segment of the manufacturing industry and, as we head into a new year, it will be moving even further into the foreground.

Often used interchangeably with 3-D printing, AM is a process where digitally designed data is used to create a three-dimensional object. Controlled by a computer, either a print head sprays tiny particles layer by layer to build up an object, or a laser is directed at a liquid or other material to create a solid form.

The process uses a range of materials in powder form, including metal, plastics and other composites.

Tech-driven firms can create a distinctive presence in the marketplace with AM. The process has been especially successful in situations where design determines production, rather than the opposite. Furthermore, AM allows highly complex structures to remain extremely light and stable. Among its other advantages, it

  • Provides a high degree of design freedom, and
  • Allows mass manufacturing of small batches at reasonable costs and a high degree of customization.

In many cases, AM has led to improved consumer goods at reduced costs, a combination that’s hard to beat. Among the products developed are knee replacements, pulley mechanisms in automobiles and fuel nozzles.

Trends Continuing for 2018

AM has already made inroads, but you can expect the following trends in 2018 and beyond.

Increased industrialization. One of the main developments involving AM is a shift from design to production of arts. Improvements in processes and materials are making additive manufacturing more efficient, less costly and more productive.

To assist in this sea change, robots are more commonly being added to the mix. Robotic arms are helping to accelerate the move to more automation. They can, for example, transfer detachable print beds to additive printers and, once an item is complete, move it to post-processing stations and put another print bed into place.

Flexibility in materials. Great strides have been made in machines printing metal products as the processes become more affordable.

Typically, metal is deposited along with a catalyst substrate material — it could be a wax, gel or other material — that goes through a sintering or heating process. This removes the substrate so the metal can solidify.

Previously, AM of metal products was expensive for prototyping or mass production. As prices go down and availability goes up, more companies are expected to join in these efforts. For now, the automotive industry seems to be leading the charge.

Similarly, there is an upswing in application-specific materials. When creating a customized solution for one part of a product, manufacturers previously had to rely on off-the-shelf materials. Now specific materials are being developed for jobs. Ceramics also are becoming a major factor, particularly in small parts that can be manufactured rapidly and cost-effectively.

The Road to the Halfway Point

Tooling. In manufacturing, technology applications are often based on the duration of products. For some industries (for example the automotive sector), the life cycle can be ten years or more. So manufacturers will take their cue and use AM as needed.

As we look toward 2018, a car maker isn’t likely to start printing new cars — at least not yet. However, it can implement tooling at various stages. As an example, a new car model that is coming out in three years may have just a few parts produced with AM. When the next generation debuts in ten years, half of the car might be produced through the additive process.

We aren’t at the point where complete products will be produced additively, but tooling is likely to gradually increase over time. Experts suggest that it won’t be long before the halfway mark is reached.

Specialized products. Generally, manufacturers have relied on AM mainly for stages in the production of larger products produced in bulk, such as cars. But the broader adoption of tooling may result in firms seeking solutions for smaller products, some of which are highly complex and intricate. Until now, these endeavors may have been cost-prohibitive.

Notably, this trend toward specialized products could be significant in the medical and dental professions, ranging from complicated hearing aids to crowns to invisible braces. Size will no longer be a detriment.

The creation of complex parts will help bridge the gap for many manufacturers from traditional processes to AM. Over the short term, producing intricate parts may remain relatively expensive, but prices can be expected to decrease as access to mass production increases. Furthermore, being able to quickly deliver specialized products in a multitude of sizes, colors and shapes can develop into a competitive advantage for firms willing to make the leap.

Need for More Software

Coordination with software. In order for AM to take root fully, hardware and materials must work hand-in-hand with software. Much of current software often doesn’t encourage additive processes for designers. But new products that can address these needs are appearing regularly.

For example, the latest version of Autodesk’s Netfabb software optimizes additive processes for machine and material combinations. This software encompasses all the tools to ready files for 3D printing, including design optimization, build simulation and printer prep. Autodesk is a member of a consortium developing the format along with 3D Systems, GE, Microsoft and others.

It’s clear that AM is taking off in a big way, if not in 2018, then in the not-so-distant future. Investigate the opportunities for your firm in this tech-driven marketplace.

Learn More at a Conference

If you want to know more about AM, conferences and similar events are taking place both in the United States and at locations around the world. Search online for additive manufacturing conferences to find opportunities convenient for you to attend.