High initial investment on metal machines makes the technology unaffordable
From composite sculptures to metal watches, 3D printing is rapidly evolving – what are the limitations?
Additive manufacturing is evolving and right now has several benefits, but lot of challenges too, to cope with. The lack of awareness about AM restricts many industries to adopt applications like conformal cooling channels, topology optimisation, etc. People aren’t looking at the intangible benefits like saving on die/mould manufacturing cost. High initial investment on metal machines makes the technology unaffordable to small scale companies and prevents smaller players from enjoying the benefits like rapid prototyping and rapid tooling. Not only metal but good quality plastics machines enabling to produce good surface finish and strength for functional parts carry high costs because of the high end technology. Risks involved in material handling for techniques like SLS, SLM, SLA and MJF require more precautions. Difficult material handling process in such technologies demands skilled man power for safe operation. Intellectual property issue regarding copyright is one of the important concerns expressed by OEMs as the service providers get access to digital data of the component to manufacture. This can be overcome by secured IT platform and Non-Disclosure Agreement. As AM is geometry specific process, an expertise to work on challenging and new job every time is needed. Lack of awareness of additive manufacturing concepts and limited training in universities results in less AM engineers. As raw materials of additive manufacturing is developed by few western companies the Asian market needs to import the material which are expensive and attracts duties.
Cost of materials is right now an issue. How can this be controlled?
The quality of materials like particle size distribution, powder morphology, filament diameters uniformity, rheological characteristics of plastic, etc., plays an important role in achieving good quality print. Whichever is the AM process, the raw material production process is critical because of the fine accuracy and close tolerance requirement. This adds to the cost in raw material manufacturing. Also limited companies are involved in raw material manufacturing, based in US, UK and Europe. Encouraging domestic market to produce additive manufacturing material in-house can help cope with the price of raw material. More adoption of additive manufacturing technology can raise the demand for material which will make more utilisation the material manufacturing units and control the cost. Collaboration and investing in material producing companies can help each other to make material affordable to everyone. The government needs to encourage and facilitate investments and joint ventures in India for powder manufacturing. The improvement in pre-processing stage can help in preventing the material wastage. Developing the optimised support structure, part orientation can help in using less material for supports and reducing the manufacturing cost. The demand for support less additive manufacturing like plastic SLS is always there which will make parts without support and hence saving the material.
Skills is another major problem in this area, as in other emerging technologies. Time for a thorough overhaul of engineering education?
Being an emerging advanced technology, the available candidates matching required skills are less compare to other manufacturing processes engineers. The learning curve is long which affect training program and expense in industry. However modifications of engineering education can help upcoming talents to settle in additive manufacturing industry with short learning curve. There is need for dedicated courses in additive manufacturing, subjects and training during engineering graduation which will make graduates fundamentally sound with AM concepts. Universities sponsorships to engineering students for doing academic projects in AM can work in great manner for making candidates additive manufacturing industry ready. Facilitate exclusive training, bringing faculty/trainers from abroad at universities will help. The introduction of education license additive manufacturing software will help engineering graduates in getting the hands on experience on software before entering the industry. The costlier AM machines are unaffordable for educational institutes but the industrial visits for students at AM industry will bring the technology closer to upcoming graduates. Under government organisations working for skill development programs can introduce AM machines at their facility which will help educational institutes to access machines and understand its operation. Encouragement for PhD programs in AM field will make the R&D easier for industry as well as country. Also the technology is upgrading everyday hence constant learning is needed.
How could companies exploit the potential of Additive Manufacturing to gain an edge?
Pace between company and customer can be reduced by educating the customer on additive manufacturing benefits and direct digital manufacturing. Spare parts market is an evergreen business which can be exploited by making digital inventory. Integration of AM with other technologies of Industry 4.0 like IoT, Cybersecurity, Augmented Reality and simulation can confidently help OEMs to make use of AM service providers safely and effectively. There is a large scope for R&D in AM field to make most use of its benefits. The optimisation of process reduces the cost and can make running machine affordable. Working to use support structure in effective way will reduce printing time. Taking the machine on lease or for jobwork is another way to use technology with no investment. The purchase/development of the parts must be routed through the product development/research teams who are looking to use the beyond the initial cost and seeing how it can add lot of value it not reduce costs. Companies need to keep budget for investing into 3D printing.
Experts believe additive manufacturing calls for new business models like leasing of printers and job shops. Will this work?
Yes and No. The leasing of printers is beneficial to both service buyer and service receiver. Service receiver can have the benefit of direct digital manufacturing by transferring the digital file to vendor and receiving the physical part without caring of machine investment, manpower risk of loss due to part failure. As the 3D printing is geometry specific process there requires a huge experience to make the prints. The service providers with their experience and 3D printing experts with different technologies are good to 3D print parts from. The service gainer has the opportunity to explore different machines and do research and development projects by just taking services. Machine owner can generate the sure and fixed revenue by leasing of printers with agreement signed. Taking the machine on lease is advantageous to OEMs as no digital data is transmitted to outside firm keeping the intellectual property copyrights safe.