3D Printing – The Next Revolution
Published by : Industrial Automation
Slowly but surely, Additive Manufacturing is revolutionising the manufacturing ecosystem.
Is 3D printing revolutionising manufacturing? The question has been asked for well over decade now with no clear answer. Is 3D printing going to replace conventional manufacturing? This one is easy to answer with an emphatic no. But the fact is 3D printing has revolutionised prototyping
and has reached a stage where some parts are being manufactured exclusively through this technology as exemplified by the jet nozzle for the LEAP engine manufactured by CFM International, a JV between GE and Safran Aircraft Engines. This effectively demonstrates the potential the technology holds, which is already being used by automotive and medical industry besides aerospace for such niche applications. While the technology itself is over 40 years old, it is the last decade captured popular imagination, riding on the Industry 4.0 hype as well as boosted but the affordable hardware as well as material development, especially for 3D metal printing. Even as the industry itself was gung-ho on its prospects, Covid-19 struck, upsetting many an apple cart.
So will the Covid crisis act as a boost or is it in fact causing a temporary setback to Additive Manufacturing? “The Covid crisis has been both, since some industries have taken a hit with their regular expansion planning and economic results,” says Barbara Arnold-Feret, Co-Leader, HP 3DP Network of Women Partnership Committee. “However, here at HP 3D Printing, we have seen an increase of 3D printing used in many applications both in Covid-19 protective gear a well as plugging supply chain gaps in general manufacturing. The effect overall has been to heighten awareness, approach existing parts with new methods of manufacturing as well as develop new products meant to help. In less than 4 years, HP 3D printing has printed more 3D printed parts that ever before and that growth is continuing,” she adds.
“AM has got boosted in certain application areas whereas a temporary setback prevailed in other sectors,” says Dr Thirumurugan S V M, 3D Health Care Consultant and Orator, from the healthcare perspective. “There has been a phenomenal use of AM technology in some healthcare applications including 3D-printed face shields, lifesaving modified ventilators, swabs for sample
collection and customised medical devices. The sudden surge in demand for equipment could only have been fulfilled globally leveraging this technology,” he adds, and also admits that there has been a significant decrease in the usage of AM for customised surgical procedures. “This is understandable in the current scenario. This is a temporary setback, like most other user industries,” he emphasises.
“Covid-19 has expanded the R&D of using Copper additives solutions. Companies are seeking alternative methods in comparison to the traditional methods. We are currently heading into Wave 2 and with high probability of a Wave 3 then we need to be looking into this much more therefore it’s only highlighting why additive manufacturing is important and why development needs investment,” asserts Lothar Hohmann, Serial Entrepreneur, Leader and Strategist, and a founding member of Dubai 3D Printing Alliance. “Covid has boosted companies to the take on a more dynamic approach to finding solutions. The self-sustaining and streamlining features of AM, among many more advantages, has led more business of varying industries shift its attention to 3D printing,” he adds.
Additive Manufacturing is presently confined to low volume, high value, customised jobs. How can it become more broad based? “Despite additive manufacturing being the most cost- beneficial one, its primary focus has remained on customisation of low volume, high value personalised jobs. It manufactures in designing prototypes with 50-60 units. Additive manufacturing can be utilised extensively by averaging as many models and components in addition to consumer demand by using the SLM technique where we use high-power density laser to fully melt and fuse metallic powders to produce net shape parts with full density. This is specifically targeted on automotive production where we can achieve in full volume for critical engine parts with super-fast automated box changes, unpacking and depowdering,” explains Amit, Engineer and Aspiring Entrepreneurial.
Disagreeing with the only low volume, customised jobs argument, Barbara Arnold-Feret says HP’s approach to 3D printing has never been low volume and prototyping only parts. In contrast, HP 3D printing has printed over 4 million different parts for Covid-19 response since the pandemic hit in full force and over more than 10 million parts in less than 3 years on our equipment. HP MJF equipment is highly suited for mass production, high volumes and plugging supply chain gaps. “3D printing made parts that previously had been un-manufacturable due to the complexity of the tooling or details that could not be made in traditional plastics processing,” she states.
“I frequently use a line in my presentations: ‘AM or 3D Printing or Digital manufacturing is like a stage and it is up to the artist to perform what they desire or capable of’. The current state of this technology has more applications inclined towards low volume and high cost prototyping,” agrees Dr Thirumurugan S V M, but adds, “Recent advances are addressing this to move applications closer to mass manufacturing with cost matching or even beating that of conventional manufacturing.”
User industries are demanding open ecosystems for greater flexibility rather than being restricted by lack of choice with single vendor. Is this the way forward? “Variety and flexibility will always be the top criteria for users when selecting the 3D printer for them. This enables its users to make use and repurpose the technology for more objectives. Top 3D printing brands such as Ultimaker pioneered with its reliability and its open-source technology, which allows the most types of filaments to be used with the printer. Its Material Alliance program sets the standards and allows users to select with confidence among trusted third-party filament brands depending on the printing objectives,” says Lothar Hohmann.
“Earlier in the additive manufacturing process, there existed close manufacturing ecosystem where the industry was confined to a single vendor. This resulted in loss of flexibility and threat of decreasing market overview,” Amit agrees. “However, the course of action is to go with open additive ecosystem giving the industries an opportunity to associate with more partnerships focussing on giving customers greater control of their innovation, more choice to reveal new applications, new business and developing new materials. Therefore, open ecosystem aids in overcoming inflexibility, use the materials of their choice and reduce costs,” he elaborates.
There is the other side to this argument which Barbara Arnold-Feret articulates. “This is a complex question, with many factors involved. One area cited but often forgotten is the need to have the material function properly and consistently in the equipment for which the 3D printed parts is being built. Unless the material has all the factors lined up for performance each time, in each batch, in every particle, build failures can result. Those failures can cause frustration and loss of time and money. A users can become very frustrated – the material supplier claims the problems is not theirs, the equipment supplier claims the materials is at fault, etc. In the end, the build fails, the users loses and no one can be blamed,” she explains.
Will Additive Manufacturing lead to an era of ‘on demand manufacturing’ and revolutionise the supply chain with virtual inventories? “AM does not have to lead to an era of ‘On demand manufacturing’. It is already working on this principle across the world,” states Dr Thirumurugan S V M. “There have been various examples in which AM manufactured products has been used directly as an end use product. On demand manufacturing is prevalent in medical applications. Customised complex geometrical implants can be designed and 3D-printed in one country and it can be shipped to other country for surgical restoration on patients directly.”
“As businesses find the most effective way of operating and quickly adapting to uncertain situations like this unexpected pandemic, AM’s ability to enable ‘on demand manufacturing’ and eliminating supply chain bottlenecks are the best ways to go,” opines Lothar Hohmann. Not only can industries limit high costs of tedious traditional manufacturing, streamlining with AM also reduces the need for external resources affected by the high cost and unexpected delays with supply chain processes. “On demand manufacturing brought by digital transformation of outdated time and cost consuming procedures, companies are able to further control its resources, enabling them to growth in RoIs,” he adds.
“HP 3DP and our users are already seeing on demand and virtual inventory in customers that use MJF technology. Benefits seem to be multiplying daily, particularity with global manufacturing locations, being able to decrease the need for tool storage, being able to redesign on the fly, do multiple versions of a design, do test marketing of different versions of a products and more. Overall, this means we are just starting to dip our toes in the waters,” says Barbara Arnold-Feret.
One of the significant issues is managing the IP rights and payments – how do original designers get compensated. Can this be resolved? “While dealing with the multiple vendors to reduce inflexibility, outsourcing of additive process to on-demand services, IP rights need to be protected from all the third parties. The things that need to be protected by IP are: Printers, including the techniques and spares parts for printing; Materials needed for printing; Instruction files used to direct 3D printer to print a design; and the final end product,” says Amit. “The AM industry is growing along with the number of 3D designers and technicians that has created various communities for sharing open source designs. Original designers have now developed its craft and are able to generate business by acting as external consultants to companies that don’t have an in-house team,” says Lothar Hohmann. According to him, designers and technical experts alike will eventually grow and become empowered by the demand for 3D printing, balancing the availability of free, open-sourced files and the urge for more companies to invest in monetised, original design files from talented individuals. “Eventually, a subindustry of 3D design providers will populate the market and will lessen the need for companies to build its own team, further streamlining its operations and lowering operating costs and reducing trial-by-error costs by relying from experts, he concludes.
(Note: The responses of various experts featured in this story are their personal views and not necessarily of the companies or organisations they represent. The full interviews are hosted online at https://www.iedcommunications.com/interviews)