We strongly believe AM technology will become cost competitive
Published by : Industrial Automation
Dr Vishwas Puttige, Business Head, amace solutions pvt Ltd
AM is presently confined to low volume, high value, customised jobs in aviation, automobile and medical fields. How can it become more broad based?
One of the early adopters of additive manufacturing (AM) technology has been the aerospace industry, as it has seen 3D printing extremely important in creating complex functional parts which are also light weight. The aviation industry has witnessed a shift in 3D printing, what earlier was used for prototyping is gradually being adopting for producing functional parts such as fuel nozzles, turbine blades, etc. There is an increase in the applications of AM in the medical sector too as there is huge demand in the market for customised patient specific medical implants, dental copings and other medical devices. The automotive industry in general has begun to experiment with AM technologies only in recent times. As trends
suggest many automotive OEMs in the west are working with industrial 3D printing alongside the regular the production activities. However, this has been limited to only the luxury and sports segment of automobiles for the time being. The other sectors aggressively exploring AM are the Oil & Gas and Electronics. Additive offers good value in many aspects, however, it is up to the manufacturer to understand the leverage on the strengths to bring true value. In some applications there is direct benefit in terms of immediate cost reduction or weight reduction, but in many other applications the benefits are more intangible. It’s an investment in technology with diverse applications and uses. The ones who have explored for
a prolonged period of time have been able to benefit from it immensely. There is an element of risk associated with it, however, it is better than running out of business when the conventional technologies become obsolete leaving no time to learn and adapt to new ones. Manufacturers have to innovate and adapt new technologies such as additive even if it means no immediate returns in order to sustain and grow in dynamic market situations. However, the lack of awareness and experience are some of the main challenges slowing down the adoption of AM. Observing the magnitude of research that has been put into AM in the past few years, AM for production is no longer a myth. The day is not far away when AM will soon find a place as an accepted production process.
How has the Covid-19 pandemic affected the 3D printing ecosystem?
One of the biggest benefits of the Covid-19 pandemic has been the accelerated growth in digitalisation. This has been largely seen in the communication, meetings, trainings and other forms of information exchange. The manufacturing industry has also seen a growing interests in leveraging on digital tools. 3D printing which is also called digital manufacturing, is being explored by many for their immediate manufacturing needs.
During the Covid-19 pandemic medical devices and allied industries utilised 3D printing methods to manufacture ventilators and other PPE equipment and benefited immensely. With disruptions in the imported parts supply, especially from China, manufacturers in many industries are using 3D printing route to mitigate the impact of disruptions thereby making the availability of parts for development much faster without the need for heavy investments. However, the back to back setbacks in the form of slowdown and the pandemic have brought down the inflow of investments into the manufacturing and development activities. This is evident from the contraction of the Indian GDP growth by over 23%. From the perspective of 3D printing, there has been reduced investments and interests in the earlier regular production activities like printing of conformal cooled tooling & dies and other engineering parts as customer have decided to play safe by adopting a ‘wait and watch’ approach. We strongly feel that 3D printing will be able to bridge the gap by utilising the digital data to manufacture components as and when it is required.
One of the significant issues in AM is managing the IP rights and payments – how do original designers get compensated. Can this be resolved?
With the advent of digital technology one of the key concerns is data privacy and design copyright. This is one of the key side effects of digitalisation. One can recall the incident where an Italian startup had 3D printed hundreds of respirator valves in response to the severe shortages faced by hospitals during the peak of the pandemic in Italy. The company that originally manufactured these valves denied to share the design file. It is remarkable to learn that on the same day, the engineers learnt about the issue of shortage of valves, created a digital file from scratch and printed hundreds of working valves. It was also later learnt that this startup would be subject to legal action from the manufacturer of original part on grounds of copyright infringement. This episode is probably the first widely publicised instance of 3D printing technology being used to infringe a medical device patent. It is worth noting that the key to appreciating a patent infringement issue with 3D printing is to keep in mind the difference between the digital and physical versions of the patented device. Usually, the patent covers only the physical object and not the digital version of it. Therefore, merely creating a 3D printable file of a component does not amount to direct infringement. However, in the case of these lifesaving respirator valves that were in short supply, it is important to note that in case of emergencies as per the Article 31 of the international patent treaty, TRIPS Agreement provides the Government of the land the flexibilities to use and authorise others to use patents without the consent of patent holders.
With the whole world moving to the digital space, very soon there will be market places for sale of original designs, which can be readily manufactured. There may be a possibility of tagging such designs for number of uses and avoid reproducing them. This will provide a platform to original designers to rightfully claim what is theirs. There are ‘feature recognition tools’ which are being developed with the ability to identify and recognise specific features of parts and design. With more intelligence in the system it may be able to identify copyrighted designs stored in its database.
Are there adequate procedures presently to regulate the industry in terms of standards and traceability?
Rules and benchmarks for best AM practices are provided by standards. Standards also ensure that rules of the game are established, adhered to, and respected by all stakeholders. AM has evolved dramatically with respect to technology, process, and materials. AM has found users from wide range of applications and industries from aerospace, medical equipment instrumentation to automotive, consumer products and beyond. With additive manufacturing moving from just prototype and batch production method to now a mass production technique, there is need for standardising these processes. ASTM has been working and preparing standards for additive manufacturing that can regulate and qualify different processes for specific industry segments. Some of these standards are very new and are still being understood by the user industry. However, very soon there will be specific guidelines and benchmarking yardsticks that will regulate the industry. Some of advanced adopters of the AM technology such as the aerospace and medical industries have stringent standards for traceability put in place very similar to the ones followed using the conventional methods.
As in many other fields, Indian industry is affected by low R&D budgets, lack of skills and adequate government funding. Any thoughts on this?
The double whammy to Indian industries, firstly in the form of an economic slowdown and now through the pandemic has certainly impacted the Indian economy’s recovery and has also affected the R&D budgets of the industry. With the low demand in the market the inflow of investments in R&D has reduced considerably, forcing the industries to adopt a ‘wait and watch’ approach. When it comes to 3D printing, many of our customers who earlier had an R&D budget to get parts printed as a part of their R&D activities have decided to postpone investments indefinitely, especially in the automotive and aerospace sector. According to a recent NASSCOM report, about 40% of India’s total workforce require reskilling in order to
keep up with emerging technology trends such as AI, IoT, machine learning and 3D printing. With over 200 million of the estimated total of 500 million strong workforce requiring reskilling, it is very encouraging to note the Government of India is planning to consider a national policy for reskilling and upskilling the Indian youth in areas of emerging technologies and expand the earlier ‘Skill India’ initiative to these sectors and bring more awareness to these diverse sectors.
One hears a lot about a hybrid system combining both additive and subtractive manufacturing. Is this the way forward?
In hybrid printing, instead of competing, additive and subtractive technologies complement each other and open up to a wide range of opportunities for applications in various industries. There is a resurgence of hybrid manufacturing systems due to the growth of metal additive manufacturing systems in the late 2000s, this has made it possible to combine additive manufacturing technology with large CNC based milling machines. Subtractive manufacturing has earlier complemented AM during the phase of post-processing, where 3D printed parts are subjected to machining in order to achieve higher dimensional accuracy and surface finish. However, in hybrid manufacturing the part should be designed to meet both, additive and subtractive manufacturing requirements. Hybrid AM seem to be beneficial in the field of repairs and maintaining worn-out parts especially in the energy sector using direct energy deposition type of metal printing. Turbo machinery equipment such as turbine blades can be repaired by depositing new material on its surface and then machining it to meet required tolerances. This not only eliminates the need for producing a new part from scratch but also reduces the number of steps required to repair a part by performing the entire operation in a single machine.
While hybrid manufacturing is still in the early stages of adaptation, the benefits it could offer to the industry are endless, however it is also important to note that it is very essential for the operator to understand the best sequence while adding and subtracting materials. In some of the applications there could be other intermediary processes between the additive and the subtractive manufacturing. The operator also needs to remain cautious from the metallurgical perspective as hybrid technology requires better understanding of the heating and cooling cycles and the impact it can have on properties of the part during the process. Lastly, but very important, the user of this technology should figure out how they can prevent distortions in parts and retain the desired shape and dimensions as new materials are added. The hybrid technique also poses a challenge to the production industry where using a single (hybrid) machine of high cost for simple machining, after printing maybe very expensive, while it could have been manufactured separately using two individual machines.
Two years after the launch of amace, what are the learnings in terms of the AM potential in India?
The journey for amace has been very exciting so far. With our experience in subtractive and AM methods, we have executed some very interesting projects. AM in India is still at a very nascent stage. Compared to other Asian countries, India needs a few more years to reach its true potential. India has been a very cost sensitive market and has become a global automotive manufacturing hub. Acceptance of AM needs a totally different perspective as compared to the conventional processes. Advantages of AM need not always be in the tangible form, a lot of awareness about the intangible benefits of AM technology has been demonstrated at multiple platforms. Not all designs are printable or viable for 3D printing. There is a strong design element attached to 3D printing called design for additive manufacturing (DfAM) where parts will be redesigned to suit 3D printing, bringing out the best from the technology. There are some manufacturers who have already used AM in the past and are currently leveraging it for their manufacturing processes. The first mover initiative has been taken by the automotive OEMs, space, aerospace and defence industry in India. The automotive industry has been using AM for rapid prototyping and their R&D initiatives. Some of the early adapters of AM in India – the defence research institutions and ISRO – are currently reaping the benefits of this technology. We are very proud to be associated with ISRO in various projects by supplying 3D printed parts. The country also has a strong tooling and dies industry with the potential to leverage advantages of AM. With the conformal cooling channels design for injection moulding inserts and for the die casting mould, significant advantages are seen by manufacturers. The Indian tooling industry is gradually beginning realise the intangible advantages offered by the concept of conformal cooling.
For India, the future is promising, we strongly believe AM technology will become cost competitive and open doors to many more applications allowing widespread adaptation.