Additive technology carves a ‘path toward production’
At the 2012 Manufacturing and Automation Summit at IMTS last September, AMT president Doug Woods said that additive manufacturing would become a transformative technology in plants around the world.
“The technology has also matured to the point that leading manufacturers are taking additive processes to a commercially viable level. And, the array of materials to which additive processes can be applied has exploded,” Woods said recently. “We are also seeing a grassroots attraction among the younger entrepreneurial generation. This important group sees additive processes as tools to translate their ideas into an actual product. We’re seeing a proliferation of collaborative labs across the country where the users see themselves as product designers and developers, but are indeed manufacturers using the latest innovations in manufacturing technology.”
Additive manufacturing has become a significant part of AMT’s long-term strategy. Tim Shinbara, AMT’s director of technology and a member of the executive committee for the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute (NAMII), discussed the technology and the future of additive manufacturing with Plant Engineering:
PE: Where are we in the adoption and development of additive manufacturing as a viable technology for manufacturing?
Shinbara: Consumer electronic product manufacturers continue to be leading adopters or end users of additive products, closely followed by the automotive, medical, and dental industries. The trends we see in medical and dental device manufacturing and in the aerospace industries are early adopters, but in small volumes because of higher risk, but at the same time, higher return opportunities.
Manufacturers are gaining understanding of designing for additive processes through better management of physics-based modeling of the relationship between materials and additive methods.
Materials are also a factor. While polymers have been present in the marketplace longer, metals have recently become more readily acceptable in industries like medical and dental where the already FDA-approved material supply chain has been leveraged to create this trend. This has opened the door for titanium alloys like Ti-Al6-V4 and polyether ether ketone “PEEK” polymers.
As for development, increased consistency in both materials and equipment plays a role. We need more consistent material supply chains and require those materials to be more functional than ever with higher recyclability attributes. On the equipment side we see a significant need for increased thermal dynamic control and closed-loop in situ feedback.
PE: What should we expect in the near term in wider adoption of additive manufacturing? What are the barriers to growth for the technology?
Shinbara: We will continue to see increased functionality. Continued advancements in the technology and adoption will be apparent as NAMII moves forward. The outcome should be growing commercialization of the technology in more markets as design data for part selection becomes readily available and inspection and certification techniques accepted.
The challenges we face include increasing critical mass in the supply chain, innovating equipment that can better sense, collect, and provide system feedback for in situ process control, and offering sufficient education for current and next-generation designers, manufacturers, and end users.
PE: What are the implications of additive manufacturing on the supply chain and parts management systems now in place? How could this technology change that process?
Shinbara: Additive manufacturing supports reduced lead times and reductions of inventory. It is a step much closer to “art-to-part” just-in-time inventory management. Process additive manufacturing will produce more on-site, in-theater manufacturing. This may increase the absolute number of manufacturing suppliers, but with each having a more local or regional scope of responsibility.
PE: What do you see as the relationship between additive manufacturing and processes such as CNC, milling, and metalforming? Do you see them as complementary or disruptive?
Shinbara: We see additive technology as a complement to traditional manufacturing processes. There are appropriate conditions for traditional (tight tolerance requirements; structural, strength-critical components; high-volume, etc.) and for additive (low-to-medium volume; mass customization; highly complex, multifunctional designs).
We believe that many traditional manufacturing houses will add additive technology as another tool in their belt, but a demand for additive-only operations will remain.
PE: As manufacturers learn more about additive and its capabilities, what are the most important things to know? What should they be aware of as this technology becomes more widely adopted?
Shinbara: With many additive manufacturing processes and many available materials (polymers and metals), manufacturers need to understand the pros and cons of each and drive the technology decision based on end-use requirements. Users need to be current and educated on what materials and processes are receiving approvals, the level of acceptance in various industries, design guidelines based on additive manufacturing processes for part and geometry selection, as well as best practices in part qualification, certification, and inspection
Often, the benefits of additive technology are not realized because requirements are written based on historical traditional materials and processes. It is critical to take a completely fresh look at the true design requirement.
We have moved far past rapid prototyping, and we are seeing a clear path toward production use. It still is not a simple Star Trek replicator “art-to-part” button, but there are areas of additive manufacturing that are very close.
PE: It’s been suggested that within 10 years, we could see consumer adoption of additive manufacturing. Where do you see the future of additive manufacturing?
Shinbara: I think it will be a natural evolution for consumer use over time. Everyone from artists to the highly technical garage tinkerer can embrace additive technology.
I expect an increase in regional and local, industry-centered additive manufacturing suppliers with dynamic capabilities to flex volume quantities and more crowd-sourced purchase orders.