Solutions for industrial scale 3D printing still remain too remote
Ivano Corsini, Founder & CEO of 3D4STEEL – the first 3D printer for steel, and creator of CorSystem – Open Powder Metal 3D Printing, responded to a few questions from Industrial Automation.
From composite sculptures to metal watches, 3D printing is rapidly evolving – what are the limitations?
At the moment there are still many limitations. First of all a clear distinction must be made between Additive Manufacturing for plastics and polymers, and Additive Manufacturing for metals, since there are considerable differences.
As far as industrial 3D printing is concerned, in particular for metals, surely one of the most important limitations is represented by the low production volume.
When an entrepreneur considers additive manufacturing the first word that comes to mind is prototyping. And this is definitely right.
There are still only a few solutions to obtain a medium scale production, and currently zero reliable solutions for what concerns large scale production. Certainly Binder Jetting could represent a viable alternative, but not for mechanical production, where solidity and precision of the components must be optimum, and due to important physical limitations, this technology cannot satisfy such requirements.
Other important limitations are the size of the pieces and the limited choice of material. As long as the big manufacturing companies want to continue with this type of philosophy, which is not close to the industrial sector, but is akin to that of experimentation and research, solutions for adoption on an industrial scale of systems of 3D printing still remain too remote.
Currently the trend is towards searching for the largest possible dimensions, when, in fact, trying to produce components and objects which are too big is counterproductive.
Cost of materials is right now an issue. How can this be controlled?
The only solution to overcome this problem is to leave the customer free to get supplies directly from manufacturers of powders, and not be tied to OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) agreements. This would considerably reduce the cost of material, since it eliminates an intermediary between manufacturer and buyer. Furthermore the market of manufacturers of materials is in exponential growth. It is unthinkable that big manufacturers of 3D printing systems raise these barriers, hindering the evolution of additive technology.
Moreover, material development by manufacturers of powders is an extremely important aspect in order to open frontiers to new materials and new applications for Additive Manufacturing. That is why, within my company, I have created a team specialised in experimentation and research of new materials in steel.
Skills is another major problem in this area, as in other emerging technologies. Time for a thorough overhaul of engineering education?
This is perhaps the main problem: the change in the way of thinking from subtractive to additive and the acquisition of new skills.
To create new skills it is necessary to teach students to reason with innovative technologies already in mind. Currently the teachers are less capable than the students. Moreover, designers, used to thinking about subtracting material and not adding, do not want to risk their job, because they wrongly think they are not capable of facing this new cultural leap.
A suitable specialised training is necessary to teach students, teachers and experts in the field, this new way of envisaging production. For this reason, I am setting up, together with the University of Modena, a specialised training course for 3D printing. Companies and designers must not be left alone, but supported in this learning process.
How could companies exploit the potential of Additive Manufacturing to gain an edge?
First of all companies who want to exploit 3D printing, should get help from people who have in depth know-how about this technology. They must not limit themselves to entrusting their designs to external service, which only produce the piece (often with terrible results). It is necessary for manufacturers of additive systems to approach the needs of manufacturing companies, and not just limit themselves to selling a machine. In this way they risk demotivating companies in the adoption of this technology, resulting in its failure.
I myself have a mechanical production company, and to overcome all these problems I have had to develop a machine for additive construction, taking into account the production needs of a mechanical company, and I have adopted a collaborative approach with the customer, not just a simple supplier-customer rapport, but acting as a support in production. It is necessary to instruct companies in this technology, otherwise we risk destroying additive manufacturing, because companies will no longer want to invest in systems they believe to be alien.
Experts believe additive manufacturing calls for new business models like leasing of printers and jobshops. Will this work?
Jobshops are destined to close down if they do not change their approach. I think that the only way for them to stay in business, offering a valid alternative, is to become specialised in the process and use of one material only, and of only one application.
All this with the aim of internally developing an important and useful skill for those collaborating with them, not just a summary skill in “3D printing”. Currently the vast majority of service offer their customers shoddy products, because they are not interested, or they do not have enough knowledge about the final applications of the ordered components, or the production needs of their customers.
As far as leasing is concerned, I believe that it would be a valid form of purchase for industrial 3D printing systems. It would greatly reduce the entry threshold, and will allow to overcome the normal obsolescence of technologies.
This is why, 3D4STEEL also offers long-term hiring solutions and leasing, supporting the machinery with technicians specialised in 3D printing for steel, to provide step by step assistance to customers in the adoption of this technology; giving them the opportunity of exploiting, to the best, all the productive benefits that a 3D printer for steel can bring to their production chain.