Will Additive Manufacturing Take Flight?
Technology gaps remain—amid skyrocketing interest—in an industry where aerospace, medical, and automotive are projected to generate the greatest demand
Terry Wohlers didn't hesitate when asked to sum up his most important take away from this year's SME Rapid Conference and Exposition, an annual showcase of additive manufacturing technology held in June in Pittsburgh, where he delivered a "State of the Industry" keynote address.
"Unprecedented interest," Wohlers replied. "I'm seeing unprecedented interest in additive manufacturing, or 3D printing, and I'm just amazed at the kinds of inquiries that we're getting."
Wohlers, president of the additive manufacturing consulting firm Wohlers Associates, Inc., said that inquiries about the technology are pouring in not just from manufacturers, but also from government agencies and companies whose interest might come as somewhat of a surprise. One was from SAP, the Germany-based, multinational company known for its development of enterprise applications software and related services. The company sees itself as a "technology thought leader" that seeks to help companies adopt innovative new technologies that can transform their businesses.
"We met with SAP about six months ago in Germany, and they outlined their plans," said Wohlers in a recent telephone interview. "They're a company that you wouldn't think would have an interest in this. But if you're going to integrate additive manufacturing enterprise-wide, and you're a company with multiple sites and you're getting inputs from various sites and manufacturing at other sites, then the IT infrastructure that would need to be in place is pretty high. And so SAP sees this as an opportunity."
Wohlers Report 2013, published by Wohlers Associates as an in-depth analysis of the worldwide additive manufacturing industry, reported earlier this year that the market for 3D printing (used interchangeably with additive manufacturing) in 2012, consisting of sales of all products and services worldwide, grew 28.6 percent to $2.204 billion, up from $1.714 billion in 2011. Wohlers Associates expects strong double digit growth to continue over the next several years, forecasting the market to approach $6 billion by 2017 and reach $10.8 billion by 2021.
Lux Research, publisher of another report that analyzes 3D printing's commercial potential, is forecasting 3D printing to grow into an $8.4 billion market in 2025 (up from $777 million in 2012), with sales of products and services to the automotive, medical, and aerospace industries leading the way. The report, titled, "Building the Future: Assessing 3D Printing's Opportunities and Challenges," predicts rapid and widespread adoption for medical applications as 3D scanning technologies, printers, and materials fall in price. The medical market, pegged at $11 million in 2012, is projected to grow to $1.9 billion in 2025.
"3D printing offers design flexibility and rapid implementation, but development needs remain in materials performance and printer throughput," stated Anthony Vicari, a research associate at Lux Research and the lead author of the report. "Over the longer term, 3D printing has potential to reshape the manufacturing ecosystem, but it will have the most impact in the near term for products that are made in small volumes, require high customization, and are more cost-tolerant."
One reason why Terry Wohlers is bullish on the industry's growth prospects is that he sees the industry in the midst of an exciting transition—from being a provider of largely prototype parts, to a provider of production parts for final products that are used in real world applications. Of the $2.2 billion in revenues generated worldwide from sales of additive manufacturing products and services in 2012, Wohlers said, an estimated 28.3% is tied to the production of parts for final products, rather than models, prototypes, patterns, and other types of parts.
"We think by 2020, that 95 percent of all money spent on products and services related to additive manufacturing will be on parts for final products, not prototyping," said Wohlers. "In fact, if you look at the growth trends, recent growth trends support that. In 2003, it was less than 4 percent, at 3.9 percent, and then if you fast forward to last year, it was 28.3 percent."
How does Wohlers see the future of the additive manufacturing industry taking shape?
"It's going a lot of directions simultaneously, and that's partly what's so exciting about it," he answered. "Not that aerospace or medical will cool, but if it did, I think in 7 to 10 years, we'll see automotive really begin to adopt it for manufacturing, and some other selected consumer product type industries as well, especially some of the online types of things. Rather than people having printers at home, they'll go online and buy parts and products. That's a business model that I think will really grow and expand.
"There are also other industries that are looking at this, and we're seeing experimentation. For example, synthetic products are being implanted into humans, and bones and living tissue are being printed. There's a lot of investment in that area. And so it's going to be difficult in the future to find an industry that won't be impacted by this. People like to have something that no one else has, and so we'll see a lot of special types of products personalized and be one of a kind, and people will pay a premium for those things."
GE Using Additive to Produce Combustion System Hardware for LEAP Jet Engine
As Manufacturing Technology Leader at GE Global Research in Niskayuna, N.Y., Luana Iorio oversees a number of labs on site, one of which is GE's 3D printing activities. In one of its leading edge additive manufacturing programs, GE is using a laser-based additive manufacturing process to produce combustion system hardware that's reportedly slated for use on CFM International's LEAP jet engine by early 2016. But GE is also intensively evaluating additive manufacturing for its ability to solve a variety of other part production challenges, according to Ms. Iorio.
"We're really looking across our entire product line at how we can use additive manufacturing to give us differentiated product performance, but also allow us to get into production more quickly," said Ms. Iorio. "We have work that we're doing in additive manufacturing for polymeric components, for ceramic based components, for metallic components, and we have activities going on where we're looking at our product portfolio in the health care space, oil and gas space, aviation space. So we're really looking at a lot of different products."
GE considers a number of factors when deciding where to use additive manufacturing. Among the differentiators, Iorio said, are components that are very complex or that require significant assembly of different subcomponents. "If we produce a part via additive manufacturing, we can eliminate some of those assembly steps and just produce a complex component in one piece," she said. "But there are also many places where we're looking to get a performance enhancement by being able to have a geometry or design that's just not possible with conventional manufacturing processes today.
"We feel like we're specifically pushing the envelope in the use of additive manufacturing for what I'll call functional materials," Iorio continued. "3D printing has been around for a long time, and people have seen SLA prototypes that were visualization prototypes, which didn't actually have to perform a function. We're looking at building parts out of piezoelectric ceramics. That's a function that we need to get from the material; not just that it geometrically looks correct. We're also looking at building components in metal out of super alloys, which we use in the hottest parts of some of our gas turbines. That's where there aren't good process parameters, recipes for hotter process materials like this, to get the material performance that you need using additive manufacturing. So that's an area of specific focus at GE Global Research."
Additive "really opens a lot of space for the designers," Iorio explained, "when you recognize that you only need to put material where it's actually doing useful work. Everywhere else, you can keep open, thinking about very radical, lattice structure components." Across its numerous businesses, GE is working to make sure that its product designers are aware of the potential that additive holds for them to think very differently about product design.
"I think it's difficult to overestimate the potential that additive manufacturing has on revolutionizing products and component design," she continued. "Product designers have typically had different constraints placed on them, where they're asking, 'is this going to be cost effective to machine?' or 'is this going to be a geometry that can be made via casting or via forging?' Whereas, with additive manufacturing, a lot of those constraints disappear, and designers can really think about exactly what it is that they want. And so we're seeing the emergence of different design tools that take advantage of the freedoms that additive enables, and designers coming up with radically different looking components."
A major limiting factor for additive manufacturing—and one that GE is working to address—is the dearth of material property curves for a wide array of materials, Iorio said. "Right now, our designers are limited a little bit around what they have already experienced in printing. I'm thinking specifically about metal alloys, the different classes of metallic materials. You can't just go and pick any material that you want. We have a limited database of how many materials we have properties for when you process it via additive. GE is working hard to populate those databases, as are many other folks, and that's where a collective effort in moving additive forward is going to be important."
Earlier this year, GE launched a pair of Open Innovation quests in an effort to build an additive manufacturing ecosystem that taps the design and production skills of 3D printing innovators throughout the world. One is a Jet Engine Bracket Design Quest, which seeks to make jet engines lighter by redesigning aircraft engine brackets. The Quest, which launched in June, drew nearly 700 global design entries via the Grab CAD platform's community of entrepreneurs, institutions, and companies. The other is a 3D Printing Production Quest that asks participants to use 3D printing technology to produce highly precise, complex parts for potential application in medical imaging and a broad spectrum of other GE businesses.
Calling it "hugely successful," Iorio said that the Design Quest tapped into the huge amount of interest that people have in designing differently because of the freedom enabled by additive manufacturing.
"Additive really changes how you think about design," Iorio said. "And the first quest that we put out, which was around the bracket for GE Aviation, is an exact example of this. We put out a functional specification, saying 'Here are the functions that this bracket needs to perform—the loads that it needs to carry, the locations of bolt holes—and challenged people to think about what they could design with the least amount of weight, recognizing that this is an aircraft engine application, so weight is always a premium. We put this Quest out from Grab CAD, and within a couple of weeks, I think we got 697 entries, which was pretty amazing to us, and a lot of very interesting concepts. Some of the lowest weight designs that we received, I think, saved on the order of 80 percent of the weight from the baseline bracket, which we use in our engines today, and are made here via machining."
GE has selected the ten finalists and is currently in the process of actually building those designs to confirm that they are, in fact, manufacturable via additive. The designs will be tested to make sure that they can bear the specified loads, and the highest performing of those ten brackets will be receiving a monetary prize.
"These quests have been applied in the software space, and we ourselves (GE), have had a variety of different quests that we've put out there—different optimization problems," said Ms. Iorio. "Those have all been pretty successful, so this is just one more way of thinking about how we might tap into good ideas, which might be anywhere around the globe. This additive quest was just another way of thinking about that."
Ms. Iorio was asked why it's important to the advancement of emerging technologies, such as additive manufacturing, for innovators to collaborate within the type of ecosystem that GE has encouraged.
"There's a lot of excitement about the potential that additive manufacturing holds," said Iorio. "But as you get into it and realize some of the limitations, it starts looking pretty daunting. We don't have property data for a lot of materials produced via additive; the additive machines that actually do the printing are not as industrially hardened and robust as we might like; you think of the supply chain that has to completely change. And as exciting as the technology is, if we have to tackle all these challenges by ourselves, then it will be a long time before even a company as big as GE can really reap the benefits of additive.
"So having more machine manufacturers available to us, having more people thinking about materials, and materials designed specifically for additive, is important. There's space for a lot of different players; the supply chain needs to look a lot different; and so, really, part of our putting this quest out there was to help encourage and foster the interest in additive.
"We're just at the cusp; we're at the beginning, and so there's still a lot more development that has to happen," she continued. "There's still a lot that's going to evolve. But we're extremely excited and see a lot of potential that additive manufacturing holds. GE's commitment to additive manufacturing and using it in a diverse array of products is pretty firm, as some of our acquisitions have indicated. There are still a lot of challenges that we need to overcome, and that's where working with material suppliers, equipment providers, software manufacturers, and designers is important. We're committed to be in this space, and we expect that through some of these collaborations, together, we'll further this technology."
Technology Developer Works at Intersection of Advanced Materials and Additive Manufacturing
Over the last 13 years, Oxford Performance Materials (OPM) has built its business around exploiting the attributes of polyether-ether-ketone (PEKK), a high performance thermoplastic molecule used in biomedical implants, industrial parts, and other demanding applications. Company president Scott DeFelice describes PEKK as a "polymer of last resort" that's often used when other materials have failed to meet performance specifications in difficult environments. The company's involvement with additive manufacturing dates back to 2006, when OPM began using the selective laser sintering (SLS) process.
"Typically, PEKK goes into really high-performance, industrial type requirements," DeFelice said. "We've commercially sold the material into deep sea applications, semiconductor applications, biomedical applications, and aerospace applications. For 13 years, we've been exploiting the molecule in different ways and developing verticals off the attributes of the molecule. So we've combined that business model with additive manufacturing, which, to us, is a very nice and enabling tool that establishes a new business platform."
Combining its advanced materials expertise with 3D printing capabilities, OPM has steered its focus toward 3D printing of "mission-critical parts where there is no room for error," such as those used in aerospace and medical applications. The company received FDA 510 (K) approval earlier this year for its OsteoFabTM Patient Specific Cranial Device, the first such approval for an additively manufactured polymer implant. And in July, OPM announced that it has received a contract from Northrop Grumman Systems Corporation (NGSC) to develop its OXPEKK® polymer for use in aerospace applications. Oxford Performance Materials will be working to produce test specimens and prototype components that will allow for the establishment of a structural design database, a necessary requirement for the design of aerospace and other critical structures. The need for such a design database is "a big deal," DeFelice said.
"We've been in the business of selling 3D printed tech structures for a while now, mostly on our biomedical side of our business, and we know a lot about the performance of the product and the properties," he said. "But when you get into the aerospace world, you need a very sophisticated statistical design database, which looks at the static and dynamic properties of the materials. Once you have that database, you can give that package to an engineer and say, 'OK, go off and design parts with it.' It's been technically vetted to a statistical repeatability of 99.9 percent, and off you go. That's sort of the box you need to check before broad adoption [of additive manufacturing]."
Oxford Performance Materials (www.oxfordpm.com) recently opened a new manufacturing facility in South Windsor, Conn., to support 3D printing of mission-critical, OXPEKK aerospace components. The new facility, located near OPM's current headquarters and manufacturing operations, will be used for production of additively manufactured industrial and aerospace parts, and for research and development. Offering finite element analysis and design, the facility has the capacity to house up to six additional laser sintering 3D printers. The company, which acquired its first EOSINT P 800 HTLS machine two years ago and has been using it to produce its OsteoFabTM medical implants, purchased its second in July and is on target to install the machine at the new facility this fall.
According to DeFelice, the EOSINT P800 HTLS is the only commercially available machine that can operate in the process conditions that OPM's polymers require.
"PEKK is a polymer that doesn't lose any mechanicals up to 150º C," said DeFelice. "It's inert; nothing but really concentrated, high temperature acids are going to take it away, or do anything to it. It's got 10,000 (MPa) tensile strength, 23,000 (MPa) compressive strength. This is a structurally robust, stable, high temperature, chemical-resistant, gamma stable, sterilizable, radiation-resistant polymer, with a list of unique selling propositions as long as my arm. So PEKK is a very, very unique molecule.
"The fact that you can put it into a shape, any shape you want, is also a very enabling attribute," DeFelice added. "But the truth is, no one is going to buy PEKK just because you can put it into a shape. You buy PEKK because you need the mechanical properties, the thermal properties, the electrical properties, the chemical resistance, the steam resistance. You need all these things that are inherent in the polymer. Another key attribute of PEKK is that it's fully recyclable. So our economics are also highly desirable."
A major gap that's still impeding the penetration of additive manufacturing into major markets is the scarcity of functional materials suitable for production parts—that is, parts that go into finished products, as opposed to prototypes. Many of the polymer materials currently available—such as nylons, polyamides, and ABS—are inadequate for structural purposes, according to DeFelice, who said he sees "a lot of prototype and functional prototype business masquerading as additive manufacturing." Buyers need to be disciplined, he said, about determining whether a service is really additive manufacturing, or just more of the same technology that's been available for the last 25 years. "That needs to be looked at closely when you evaluate the market, because the materials are huge," he said. "You need materials that have much more functionality and capability."
Another need is for improvements in the machines, which DeFelice said have been traditionally designed to make prototypes. "They have, inherent in them, a series of compromises—in controlling dimensions, controlling properties—that restrict their use for real production parts," he said. "So there's more to do on the machine side."
Much will need to change within supply chains, too. "The machine manufacturers and the materials suppliers have to appreciate that they're going into highly specified, highly engineered businesses now," said DeFelice. "What went for service support, specifications, and certifications in those prototype businesses doesn't fly when you're putting the part in somebody's body or putting it on aircraft, when the cost of failure is not acceptable. It's a maturation that other industries have gone through, and it's not an implausible thing. The companies that wake up and realize they're not in the prototype business anymore, and really put in the quality systems and the management systems to support critical applications, will do fine."
As a company that serves the highly-regulated biomedical and aerospace industries, OPM has done the heavy lifting to put its own quality management systems in place. The company, certified to ISO 13485, ISO 9001:2008, and AS9100 C standards, as well as cGMP and FDA requirements, also expects a high level of compliance from its own suppliers. "We're really in the process of vigorously trying to educate suppliers and trying to educate partners so that they understand the standards that do exist and that they need to take seriously," said DeFelice.
Oxford Performance Materials is a member of the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute (NAMII), a public-private partnership of organizations from industry, academia, government, and workforce development that are working to transition additive manufacturing technology to the mainstream U.S. manufacturing sector while helping to accelerate the advancement of the technology. Based in Youngstown, Ohio, NAMII is the pilot institute for up to 15 National Network for Manufacturing Innovation (NNMI) institutes and is managed by the National Center for Defense Manufacturing and Machining.
We asked DeFelice about OPM's role, as a member company, and why NAMII is important to the industry.
"Government certainly has a role in facilitating the early industrialization of a new technology," DeFelice said. "We've always done it, and there's always a role. The question is, 'is it a coordinated role, or is it sort of ad hoc?' I think that as a coordinator and facilitator, to create standards, to create an environment where the industry players can regularly interact and cooperate, to bring the user community—meaning the Lockheeds, the Northrops, the Boeings—into that environment, it makes a lot of sense. And so we're a member and we're fully supportive of it. Our role, in that environment, is to be productive and create business opportunities that ultimately create jobs, and technologies that ultimately create exports. It's not to go in there and be political; it's to go in there and make things and get things done."
DeFelice credits NAMII for raising the profile of additive manufacturing in a big way, helping to stoke interest in the technology and laying the foundation for people, including engineers, to learn more about it. As a result, he said, people are contacting OPM to "get smart" about whether or not the technology can help solve their manufacturing issues.
"It's not a huge sum of money that was put on the table, but it was a huge profile raise," he said. "And so CEOs of industrial companies went into their executive teams and said, 'Hey, let's get smart on additive; let's make sure that the other guy isn't going to figure out how to use this before us, and we get our lunch handed to us. That's absolutely the right thing to do if you're a CEO of one of those companies. But what that's meant is, down into and through the engineering ranks, eventually, there's somebody in almost every industrial company in America whose job it is to get smart on additive manufacturing. That's really a very positive result of this whole thing, which means that we get calls where people say, 'Hey, we don't really know what part to make; we don't really know what process to use, but let's get smart, and then we'll start talking about the types of problems we have. And it's that process which is probably the single biggest bottleneck in this industry."
It takes a multi-disciplinary engineering team—on the side of the AM provider and on the customer's side—to effectively implement an additive manufacturing solution into a company, DeFelice said. "You've got a lot of people making machines; you've got a lot of people from the prototype world who haven't actually implemented additive manufacturing solutions because they don't have the technical breadth," he said. "And that's precisely how a small company, like OPM, has been able to position itself on the leading edge of orthopedics and on the leading edge of aerospace—because we have that multi-disciplinary, focused component development capability, using advanced materials, using additive manufacturing."
DeFelice foresees a day when companies, such as GE, will have hundreds of parts that are additively manufactured. Ultimately, he believes, the technology for making these parts will no longer exist as separate and distinct from other manufacturing supply chains, but will be incorporated into them. To get there, however, requires the types of developments that many companies can't facilitate on their own. "It requires a technical developer," he said. "So I think what you're going to see is, in the longer term, incorporation into traditional manufacturing supply chains, and—in parallel—advanced companies developing additive manufacturing solutions for their products and others."
Will additive manufacturing ever replace traditional manufacturing processes?
"It will replace certain traditional manufacturing processes," DeFelice said. "If I look at the breakdown between penetration into existing manufacturing markets, versus what I would call 'blue sky' opportunities—the ability to create the thing that you could never create before, so it didn't even exist as a manufactured item—there's probably equal blue sky opportunity, if not more. I think there's a lot of effort right now in trying to make the same thing a different way, and I think people look at the economics of that and wonder why they bought their AM machine. It's all about making a new thing a new way, and that's a bigger climb."
DeFelice said that the State of Connecticut has been "hugely supportive" of additive manufacturing in the state. "It's important because one of Connecticut's leading industries is based upon subtractive manufacturing and, to the extent that the state actors understand that there's a future here, they're willing to invest in something that, even in the short term, may replace some existing manufacturing technology, but in the long term, is in their interest."
An Effective Way to Consolidate Parts
Additive manufacturing offers the ability to consolidate multiple parts, which had previously been assembled, into a single part or structure. Solid Concepts, an additive manufacturing, rapid prototyping, and custom manufacturing services provider based in Valencia, Calif., recently used FDM with Ultem to build mounting feature attachment fittings directly into an aircraft air duct, significantly reducing part count.
"Part count reduction ties into freedom of design because you can add features and complicate design without really adding cost," said Chuck Alexander, product manager for additive manufacturing at Solid Concepts. "This was a large Ultem duct, and mounting bracketry was built along with the duct so that we didn't have to attach the bracketry and then mount it from there, which adds not only part count, but assembly labor—and the cost to do that—as well. So if customers are looking at using additive manufacturing as a production method, we always encourage them to look for those part numbers that are in and around the parts that they're looking to build. It could be simple things, like wire tie anchors or zip tie anchors. You can just build those on to the parts. Where you had to manufacture it in four, five, or six pieces before, you can combine them all together, realizing an even more substantial savings in time and money."
Solid Concepts added a pair of EOS Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DMLS) machines to its Austin, Tex., facility earlier this year in response to what the company said was a "clear demand from customers." The company is currently using an EOS M270 for parts made of 17-4 stainless steel, and an EOS M280 to achieve faster production times for complex aerospace parts made of heat- and corrosion-resistant Inconel 625 and 718 metal alloys. Bringing the DMLS machines into its operations was a natural progression for Solid Concepts, which has always emphasized speed in meeting customers' needs, according to Alexander.
"At first, this was all known as rapid prototyping, and so speed is still one of the primary benefits of any of these technologies, and that's true of DMLS as well," Alexander said. "It's part of our core, too; we're always focused on getting things to the customer as quickly as we can. That's not only a result of the equipment, but it's also because of the operations that we put in place to make sure that that's what we're focused on."
Direct Metal Laser Sintering's ability to build parts layer by layer, with very few constraints, has enabled Solid Concepts to "build almost what anybody can design," Alexander said, and to do so with different alloys of metal. In addition to using its M280 machine to run Inconel production parts for fuel system components, exhaust system parts, and turbine engine components, Solid Concepts is able to run cobalt chrome, a corrosion resistant material that's well suited for medical devices, surgical tools, and dental crowns. A major attribute of metal parts made by DMLS, according to Alexander, is that their material properties "are, for all intents and purposes, isotropic," meaning that they're the same "in all build directions of the part"—the X, Y, and Z axes.
"That's not true with all of additive manufacturing," he said. "In plastics additive manufacturing, there's a reduction in physical material properties in the Z direction of build, because you're basically bonding layers on top of layers. But in the DMLS, because you have a molten pool of metal underneath that you're adding the next layer to, the properties are isotropic, meaning you get the same properties in the Z direction as you do in X and Y. So that's a big difference."
Alexander said that unlike traditional manufacturing, which is used to make large batches of the same part, additive manufacturing is good at doing large batches of parts where every part is unique. "We call that 'mass custom manufacturing,' he said. "But in order to realize that from a design aspect, you really need the ability to do mass custom design. That's why additive is a real good fit, manufacturing wise, for the medical industry, where you're doing custom knee implants.
"Last year, we did over 8,000 sets of casting patterns that get cast in cobalt chromium for knee implants, and they were all unique—all 8,000 sets were uniquely fitted to the patient that they were going to be implanted into. And that's a perfect application for additive manufacturing because we can run all of these geometries together in a batch. They run through a single run through the machine, and they get processed as a single batch, but every geometry is unique.
"That type of application in the medical field has the advantage of a 3D capture tool—the MRI or CT scan—so that you can take the patient's unique body geometry and then tweak that to make the implants to fit them directly," he continued. "I'm not sure, as far as traditional CAD design goes, that there's a way to create that kind of mass custom design. So that will be a challenge to software developers to figure out ways to make software more accessible to more people. In the 3D scanning and digitizing world, the scanners are getting cheaper; they're getting into the hands of more people. In fact, you can probably download an app to your iPhone where you can do simple 3D scans and those kinds of things. So that's one thing that will help us get to that 'mass custom design' kind of thing. But that's an opportunity and a challenge right now."
Looking toward the future, Alexander foresees a big increase in customer-specific applications for additive manufacturing. He believes that equipment capabilities and information about process materials—what they can and can't do—will need to keep pace with additive manufacturing as it continues to be used, more and more, a means to fulfill custom, personalized needs in an ever-growing marketplace.
"In the years that I've been involved, the equipment manufacturers and the materials that they provide have been general purpose, so they've been kind of targeted to the 'mean' of the market," said Alexander. "And I think that companies are going to be hard pressed to keep up with the diversification that could happen. I'm hoping that they can, because if they can, then this really could be the next Industrial Revolution."
Will additive manufacturing ever replacing traditional manufacturing processes to any extent?
"I think so," said Alexander. "It seems to me that consumer products, in general, are shorter and shorter life cycle, and the more you can customize them to the user, the more likely you are to sell to that customer. And I see that as a trend: Where you have shorter lifecycles, you have shorter runs of things, you have more customization, and that fits directly into additive manufacturing.
"Just the pace of product development, I think, is a driver to shortening product lifecycle, as well," he continued. "Again, I think additive is a big player in that because the shorter the product lifecycle gets, the fewer and fewer products you have to amortize expensive tooling and other product development costs across. So as that happens, and as improvements happen on the 3D printing side, I think [the role of additive manufacturing] could be significant."
Besides offering the additive processes of SLA, SLS, FDM, and DMLS, Solid Concepts provides conventional manufacturing services that include tooling, injection molding, CNC machining, and urethane casting.
A Complement to More Conventional Manufacturing Processes
Incodema Group, an Ithaca, N.Y.-based provider of rapid prototype services, added Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DMLS) to its offerings earlier this year. The new process complements a number of other additive manufacturing technologies offered by Incodema, including Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM), Selective Laser Sintering (SLS), and Stereolithography (SLA), as well as a range of traditional manufacturing processes that include sheet metal stamping, CNC machining, laser cutting, photochemical machining, EDM, and wire EDM.
"A lot of the geometries that people want made are very difficult to do with CNC, or with machining or castings, and then machining," said Scott Volk, Incodema's director of additive manufacturing, metals. "DMLS offers a way to build a part with many of the tolerance requirements already built into the part. With minimal machining, you can then produce the same product that you would normally take weeks to produce by using CNC. So it's a way to offset a lot of the high lead times that happen within CNC."
Incodema's business development manager, James Hockey, said that additive manufacturing can build things that can't be built any other way, and that's what's sparking the greatest interest in the technology. "It really is the way to design for function," said Hockey. "Designers are able to now work their CAD, work their dreams, and there is a technology able to build it now, without the need to worry about designing for manufacturing, designing around the limitations. You no longer have to worry about a complicated part being built in 10 different pieces because you can't get it built any other way, taking 24 weeks or more to get in place. Now, you can redesign it to one piece, and have a much better, much more highly designed and highly functional part."
Volk was asked if he believed that additive manufacturing would ever replace traditional manufacturing processes, or if he saw it instead as something that would remain a complementary process.
"I believe it will be a complementary process," said Volk. "I don't ever see additive manufacturing actually ever replacing, completely, traditional methods, mostly because there are a lot of parts that are required—and many assemblies—where it would just never make sense to do that in additive manufacturing. There are just too many parts that are a perfect CNC part or a perfect casting, where CNC machining or casting are the proper methods to produce those parts. Unless you do something unique with it—like adding internal channels or creating some special feature within the part—there's no reason to do that part in additive manufacturing. So because of those types of parts, I don't think that additive manufacturing will replace traditional methods.
"On the other hand, another reason that it won't is because I don't really see it as a battle between the technologies," he continued. "I think additive manufacturing is going to create more of a need for traditional [processes], and what I mean by that is CNC, EDM, and wire EDM. Additive manufacturing, and DMLS, specifically, needs all of those technologies to finish the part, so you still need them. And so I think the perfect word is 'complementary.' Both technologies are complementary of each other; it's just choosing the proper process for every project.
"And now you've gone full circle, back to why we believe so strongly in the Incodema Group," said Volk. "We are a single source provider, so we do it all in one place. We get to choose the best way to make a part because we have everything available to do it the right way."
Incodema (www.Incodema.com) has set its sights on a leadership role in the development of materials for DMLS. The company will be working within its own R&D department and as part of coordinated efforts with Cornell University and Binghamton University.
"We're setting up a separate incubator, so to speak, for materials," said Hockey. "We've got machines that are going to be dedicated to doing nothing but develop materials, not just for ourselves, but also with customers. So we can help clients, OEMs, develop characteristics that they're looking for."
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