A Turning Point for 3D Printing?


New ways of thinking about design and additive manufacturing could be the impetus needed to take the industry to a whole new level.

Mark Shortt
Editorial Director
Design-2-Part Magazine

A lot of people are thinking differently about 3D printing, or additive manufacturing, these days. Some are rethinking old assumptions, such as the layer-by-layer additive approach, in an effort to make big gains in speed and mechanical properties. Others are filling a sizable gap by focusing on the business value it creates. And just about everyone aspiring to build a unique, complex product that can’t be built by conventional methods is beginning to realize that they need to think differently about design for additive manufacturing.

Additive manufacturing appears to be growing up, in more ways than one. There’s no doubt that it offers some pretty amazing capabilities. But do you know if it make business sense to bring it into your manufacturing operations? Can you arrive at a reliable estimate of the business value that it can create for your company? And how do you learn to design for additive manufacturing, and develop design tools that enable you to take greater advantage of all that the technology has to offer? The fact that people are asking these questions is probably a sign that the industry is maturing, and the answers could very well determine whether the industry is ready to move forward in a significant way.

North Carolina State University’s Edward P. Fitts Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering is working at the forefront of advancements in domestic manufacturing, particularly those involving 3D printing, and is well aware of the challenges facing designers of 3D printed products. The university leads the efforts of Power America, the Next Generation Power Electronics National Manufacturing Innovation Institute, in using 3D printing processes to produce next generation electric grid components. Dr. Paul Cohen, Edgar S. Woolard Distinguished Professor and Head of NC State’s Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering (ISE), acknowledges that the university is “exceptionally strong in additive manufacturing.”

“The types of things that we work with involve new material development, developing processes, and ways to monitor processes,” Professor Cohen told Design-2-Part Magazine in an interview. “We’re looking at Design for Additive Manufacturing. If engineers are going to do this, and begin to put this into various products, they need to understand how to design. And I think, especially if you’re talking about metals, it’s not very well understood.”

Areas of particular interest to Cohen include exploring how to 3D print multi-material and multi-functional devices, and how to design for those processes. If you have the ability to put different materials exactly where you want them, you can create products that have properties that vary from one point to another. “I think those are the kinds of things that we’ll be doing with this Institute,” he said.

Multi-material printing is a huge challenge, Cohen said. “Can we print polymers and metals, for example, as part of the same product? And can we print polymers or gels with living cells for other things that we’re doing in regenerative medicine? How do we create, design, and then fabricate multi-functional devices, so that you can put different functions into the same device? As part of this, how do you design this, and how do you translate that into how it would be made using 3D printing? And those are all big challenges.”

Cohen was asked how one would go about learning, iterating, and coming to a point where they know they’re actually making progress on how to design for additive manufacturing.

“I think it’s going to be different for students that may just now be learning how to design, versus those people that have been designing for many years because it takes a totally different mindset, I believe, to do it, and there are additional considerations. There are lots of rules of thumb that people have experience with when it comes to additive manufacturing, but I think what people need to develop is a systematic approach on how you design, understanding what the limitations are, and how to take advantage of the process, to be able to create the structures that you want with the properties that you want. But I think for designers that are out there today, it will take a whole new way of thinking to do that.”

When it comes to designing for additive manufacturing, veteran industry analyst Terry Wohlers said that one of the big challenges is that the current workforce doesn’t have any experience with it. “They’ve learned to design for conventional manufacturing, for things like CNC milling and injection molding,” he said. “How do you design a part so you can get the part out of the mold with the fewest number of actions, and to reduce complexity and cost? Now, you almost have to undo, not all that thinking, but the majority of it. So there are design requirements and guidelines that need to be created to help engineers and designers understand what’ s possible and what’s not.

“That’s on the skills side of the equation, and then you have the [design] tools, and the tools really are not up to par. What if you want to introduce thermal conductivity, or graded surfaces, or color? What if you want to create a very organic shape—something that maybe is inspired by bamboo—or to use topology optimization to design a very lightweight, but strong structure? What if you want to do those kinds of things to really take advantage of the machine technology, because now you can, but you don’t have the design tools to do it? In the case of topology optimization, there’s a lot of tools out there, but it’s a separate process; it’s not embedded or integrated with your CAD software, so it’s very much a two-step process, and maybe even more than that, depending on your workflow.

“So on the tool side we have some catching up to do, and the reason we don’t have those tools is because we haven’t really manufactured with additive manufacturing for very long. So it’s still a relatively new concept to most people and companies.”

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