Implementing Industrial Additive Manufacturing Systems for End-Use Part Production
The impending adoption of 3D printing end-use parts (sometimes called direct digital manufacturing, or DDM) is often part of various industry forecasts touting industrial additive manufacturing (AM) as a technology capable of eventually supplanting traditional engineering applications in industries that generally include aerospace, architecture, automotive, consumer products, medical devices and industrial products. This eventuality is usually followed by one or two specific examples of end-use products produced by a certain company as proof that these predictions are coming true. I would caution people from reveling in the certainty in this eventual transformation. There are valid reasons to be excited about the potential of additive manufacturing, but the reason to be cautious is that you will probably never hear a news story about a company that adopted additive manufacturing and proceeded to go out of business or realized it was a poor investment.
Effects of Implementing an Industrial Additive Manufacturing System
1.) Additive manufacturing allows companies a whole new way to design and produce products with more complex geometries and a higher degree of customization. Industrial AM has surpassed applications like forging, casting, tooling and other subtractive machining processes in certain specific cases. Designers can focus on designing a part based on performance without worrying about manufacturing limitations.
2.) The prospect of installing in-house industrial AM systems is also attractive because it can reduce the complexity and instability of a manufacturing operation or supply chain that includes outsourcing to third-party services for molding, tooling, prototyping and other parts of the product they were previously unable to customize, design or produce in house. In-house AM also allows designers and engineers the ability to iterate designs faster and produce products with less material and fewer sub-components as a result. If this kind of work was previously outsourced, in-house efforts can produce dramatic results for a company, such as decreasing time-to-market for certain products, giving them a competitive edge in their particular industry.
3.) A company that adopts an industrial AM system will all of a sudden find itself with an ability to produce a wider variety of products, whether or not they are creating prototypes of other products or producing end-use parts for a part of their supply chain that may be responsible for a section of low-volume production that requires a higher degree of customization. The flexibility of AM can allow a company to experiment with entirely new products or create new supplementary products to augment profitability and performance of an existing product line.
4.) Industrial AM has the ability to reduce the impact of location as a factor when considering opening a new manufacturing facility. By reducing the amount of capital it takes to reach a minimum level of efficiency in terms of production, a company or organization can pick a location that is advantageous to them in terms of cost in a new way. Industrial AM allows for a manufacturing facility to be more autonomous and less reliant on outsourcing, which effects the configuration of its supply chain. Every unit of cost can be used to produce more products and will not be spent on costly product changeovers as well as outsourcing customization efforts.
Depending on the impact that industrial AM has on a particular business in a particular industry, a company may completely rework its supply chain and pursue new products as part of a radically altered business model. What’s more likely is that a company will adopt the technology to innovate and increase the performance of their existing products. Or a company could use industrial AM to transform their supply chain and leave their existing products alone for the most part. What is most likely is that a company will use AM to improve the value of products they are already creating without touching their supply chain or creating new products. But this is what makes end-use parts fabricated by industrial AM so radical: a company can leverage its investment against the ability to produce products based on customer specifications, increase an existing product’s functionality and improve its performance, be more flexible and responsive to market activity that affects their bottom line, eliminate extra cost as a factor in increasing the functional or aesthetic complexity of a product, add mass customization to their capabilities, manufacture end-use products at their point of use, remove intermediaries in their supply chain, reduce the amount of required inventory, and quickly respond to fluctuating demand.
Examples of Additively Manufactured End-Use Parts
But who is using industrial AM right now to create end-use parts and how do material limitations affect the ability to create end-use parts?
The examples of additively manufactured end-use parts are most abundant in the medical and dental industries. Material limitations are underscored by the fact that most medical AM end-use parts have to meet high regulatory standards. Right now, companies like Oxford Performance Materials have produced cranial maxilla-facial implants derived from MRI or CT scans for use in craniotomies, orbital reconstructions and mandibular reconstructions as well as non-load-bearing upper extremity implants and small-bone (hands and feet) implants.
The direct result is better fitting and more aesthetically pleasing medical implants that reduce delay times of surgeries and result in faster recoveries. They use proprietary PEKK (polyether ketone ketone) materials derived from PEEK (polyether ether ketone) that were in production for the medical industry before they adopted 3D printing as a method of manufacturing. When they switched to industrial AM systems, the results were dramatic. Customers could order more complex implants, and OPM could provide them. As each application is approved by the FDA and other global regulating bodies, their manufacturing business increases. Most recently, the FDA approved OPM’s SpineFab VBR implant system. There’s also the famous story of Dr. Anthony Atala of Wake Forest University successfully implanting seven 3D-printed bladders in his patients at the Boston Children’s Hospital between 1999 and 2001 — probably the best example of an end-use additively manufactured product.
Dental end-use parts have given rise to the digital orthodontics laboratory, which has dramatically altered business for dental 3D printer, 3D scanner and 3D software producers, their clients and of course their patients. Now a patient can have a tooth scanned and then have a crown fabricated and implanted during the same office visit. Highlighting the versatility of dental 3D printers is important not only because it shows that different industries use the same materials to produce different goods, but it shows that even a 3D printer designed for dentistry can produce each good across each industry.
For example, the ProX DMP 3D printers from 3D Systems fabricate not only custom dental prostheses and orthopedic implants, but also tire molds, watch parts, and aerospace parts, as well as conformal tooling, tooling inserts and blow molds. Stratasys has their Objet Eden 260, 260V and 260VS 3D printers which have the option of mixing together different percentages of 15 different materials that including transparent, rigid opaque, simulated polypropylene, rubber-like and high-temperature materials. Microsoft recently used an Objet Eden 260 to improve the design on the lens-housing component on an Oculus Rift VR headset. Of course, many other industries are using industrial AM to manufacture end-use products, such as the aerospace industry.
Overall, when it comes to end-use parts, metal additive manufacturing is probably providing the most intrigue to companies interested in the technology.
Examples of Metal AM End-Use Parts
A team at GE recently produced a working mini-jet engine that was produced by metal additive manufacturing. In April of this year, GE’s T25 sensor housing component became the first 3D-printed part certified by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to fly inside GE commercial jet engines.
As a result, GE is working with Boeing to retrofit 400 GE90-94B jet engines with the T25, which power Boeing’s 777 passenger aircraft. The T25 is printed in a cobalt-chrome alloy, which allows it to protect internal electronics from icing and wind forces. GE has also started flight tests with its next generation LEAP jet-engine, which has 19 metal 3D printed fuel nozzles incorporated into its design.
The LaserCUSING process from Concept Laser was responsible for 3D printing out of titanium a bracket for the Airbus A350 XWB that weighed 30 percent less than one manufactured from the traditional milling process. Concept Laser can 3D print thermally stable components from tool steel, stainless steel, aluminum and titanium alloys, cobalt-chromium alloys, silver and gold alloys and nickel-based superalloys.
ExOne’s M-Flex metal 3D printing system that prints in stainless steel, bronze, tungsten, silica ceramic sand and glass was used by drilling technology company Ulterra a year ago to print a short run of rotors from a bronze and stainless steel alloy that were previously produced by traditional machining methods in steel. After a full comparison, the 3D printed bronze rotors were superior in terms of their lifecycle and manufacturing cost. The traditionally-manufactured steel rotors cost between $400 and $500, while the AM rotors cost between $75 and $150.
In 2005, Linear Mold & Engineering invested in its first direct metal laser sintering (DMLS) machines just two years after it opened shop in Livonia, Michigan. LM&E provides rapid tooling for the automotive industry. In the beginning, the industrial AM system was mainly used to produce functional prototypes for customers in the medical and aerospace industries. After a while, they began to use DMLS to fabricate conformal-cooled inserts for the tooling that made up 85 percent of their overall business. This end-use insert went on their relatively low-volume plastic injection molds manufactured at a separate facility and run on in-house presses.
If you adopt DMLS or metal 3D printing, you will need to keep your band saws and other machining equipment to remove the metal prints, which require a lot of finishing work. Though limited by the amount of materials a company or group can use to 3D print end-use parts, interested parties should remember one important thing about industrial additive manufacturing: it can be used to combine materials in ways that simply are not possible using traditional manufacturing methods. New alloys and material combinations provide the strongest argument to counter the fact that there are more materials available for manufacturing in traditional ways.
But again, you’ll probably only hear the good news.
About the Author
Andrew Wheeler is an optimistic skeptic whose lifelong passion for computer hardware has led him to 3D printing and his latest technological passion, Reality Computing.