It has been dubbed as the ‘third industrial revolution’ by the likes of ‘The Economist’, a technological breakthrough that could have the same lasting impact on manufacturing as the mechanisation of the textile industry did in the latter years of the 18th century, writes Ian Adcock.
It’s being billed as having the game-changing potential of Henry Ford’s first modern production line for the Model T just over a century ago in 1913.
‘It’ is direct digital manufacturing (DDM) or 3D printing. That’s certainly the view held by Stratasys CEO, David Reis, when he unveiled the company’s biggest 3D printer, the Objet 1000 in Frankfurt at the end of 2012.
Of course, as boss of one of the world’s leading manufacturers of 3D printing machines you would expect him to say that, but there’s increasing evidence that manufacturers and governments alike, are similarly convinced.
“3D or Additive Manufacturing (AM) is seen by the US Government as a means of repatriating jobs back to the USA from the Far East and Asia,” says Reis. “It’s a parallel situation here in Europe with comparable investment funding 3D printing and research. Three million jobs from Europe were lost to Asia with similar numbers in USA, and governments think that 3D printing is one of the pillars to bring manufacturing back home. There’s a lot of excitement about it.”
As part of his Administration’s ‘We Can’t Wait’ initiative, President Obama announced steps to launch a pilot institute to serve as proof-of concept for the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute (rebranded as ‘America Makes’ in October 2013) based in Youngstown, Ohio. Five federal agencies: the Departments of Defense, Energy, and Commerce, the National Science Foundation, and NASA, jointly committed to invest USD 45 million in a pilot institute on additive manufacturing. The announcement of an initial USD 30 million award under existing authorities is matched by USD 40 million from the winning consortium.
Meanwhile, the UK Government is committed to investing GBP 15 million to establish a national centre for 3D printing at the Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC) in Coventry.
Reis is bullish, naturally, about the future, predicting the market will have more than tripled in size to USD 6 billion by 2019 with new entries coming into the market with various technologies to solve problems in both metal and plastic printing. Venture capitalists are said to be eager to jump on the AM bandwagon.
To date 3D printing has been largely used to make prototype parts or products for testing, and it’s this requirement in the automotive industry that led to the development of the Objet 1000.
It has a large (1,000x800x500 mm) envelope that, says Reis allows users to produce bigger assemblies, of up to 200 kg, in one piece. Combine that with a selection of 123 materials, including those that simulate ABS plastic, and a flexible range with Shore A values from 27 to 95 and a capability to combine up to 14 materials in a single model and its versatility is immediately apparent.
“Before the Objet 1000, automotive users had to produce fascias in two halves and glue them together, now they can do a 1:1 model straight off,” explains Reis. The Objet 1000’s design was influenced by automotive users who were taken to see early prototypes. “They told us they wanted easier material handling and a window at the side to ensure everything is working as it should.”
Reis sees a future for smaller desktop 3D printers that will allow small engineering and design jobs to be reproduced quickly and easily before full scale versions are produced by a rapid prototyping centre. “I think if we do our job properly in the auto industry, we will deepen our penetration to the rapid prototyping centre but, at the same time, bring the technology to the engineer’s desktop.”
Stratasys has already moved ahead with the announcement earlier this year at the Las Vegas Consumer Electronic Show of its ground-breaking Objet500 Connex3 colour multi-material 3D Printer, the first 3D printer to combine colours with multi-material 3D printing. It features a unique triple-jetting technology that combines droplets of three base materials to produce parts with virtually unlimited combinations of rigid, flexible, and transparent colour materials as well as colour digital materials, all in a single print run. This ability to achieve the characteristics of an assembled part without assembly or painting is a significant time-saver. It helps product manufacturers validate designs and make good decisions earlier before committing to manufacturing, and bring products to market faster.
Probably just as significant is the announcement from US-based Mark Forged, founded by Gregory Mark (a partner in racing car wing manufacturer, Aeromotions), that it has developed the world’s first 3D printer to use carbon fibre, fibreglass, nylon or thermoplastic PLA.
The machine maybe small (it measures just 574x360x322 mm), but so were the early 3D printers and if this can be scaled up successfully it could be used for larger carbon fibre structures and be the breakthrough needed if carbon fibre is to become a more widely used material in mass production in the OEM’s quest for lighter vehicles.
To date companies have tended to use 3D printing to produce prototype parts, or products for testing much quicker than traditional model making processes. Luxury car maker Bentley is a typical example. It has been employing 3D printing in one form or another since Project 614, better known as the Continental GT, which was launched a decade ago in 2004.
Bentley has an Objet 30 and Connex 500 and has been trialling an Up!Plus+ desktop printer for very accurate interior parts such as knurling on knobs and other switchgear. The Connex is used for a variety of parts from the interior as well as exterior features such as grilles and radiator shells; even though the machine can only make parts to around 500 mm Bentley is able to stitch them together to make a 1.2 m trim parts.
Through its bespoke Mulliner division Bentley offers clients a wide range of personalised trim and fittings and, whereas in the past these models would be made from rigid foam to give a client an idea of the finished article, it now produces them much more quickly using 3D printers. And, whilst its dealer network, as yet, doesn’t have 3D printers in their showrooms it would be entirely feasible for the customer to discuss their requirements with the designer at Crewe and for those parts to be reproduced in the showroom via the 3D printer.
However, the true potential of AM will be realised when it makes the transition from design shop or modelling studio to the factory floor.
Traditional manufacturing employs ‘subtractive’ techniques that create waste and demand lengthy assembly processes, whereas AM is an additive process that creates minimal waste in addition to enabling complex assemblies to be produced in a single process.
It’s a stretch of the imagination but is it possible that vehicle assembly plants as we know them today won’t exist? In their place, instead, vast 3D printing and DDM machines will be manufacturing complete vehicles in one hit. That might sound more like ‘Star Wars’ than ‘Car Wars’, but NASA has been reported as researching the feasibility of orbiting 3D printer stations and then delivering the base materials to assemble complete spacecraft.
That might be complete blue sky thinking, but already several of the world’s biggest manufacturers, like General Electric, EADS and Siemens are leading the 3D march from studio to production line.
Since January, Siemens power generation and maintenance division has been using 3D printing to manufacture spares and other components for its gas turbines; currently it can produce 100 different parts with the result that some repairs can be done in a tenth of the normal time.
“High-temperature turbine parts are probably one of the most challenging applications for 3D printing,” Nicolas Vortmeyer, chief technology officer at Siemens’ power generation division told the Financial Times. “It’s not the easiest application of 3D printing because in turbo machinery you have some of the highest temperatures and stress and strains.”
Siemens believes 3D printing could be a game-changer in the supply of spare parts which are currently mass produced, stored and distributed as needed. Why not save all the storage space and transport costs, it is argued, by printing the part close to the customer?
According to Wohlers Associates, the automotive sector is the second biggest user of 3D printers after consumer products, but it is lagging the aerospace sector in utilising its potential.
GKN and EADS are developing a 3D printed titanium bracket that takes 40 minutes to print compared to four hours machining, whilst reducing the bill of materials by 30 per cent.
Even more impressive is GE Aviation’s plans to manufacture fuel nozzles for its new Leap engine that will power Boeing’s 737 MAX and Airbus A320neo, from 2016, using 3D printers.
Each engine contains 19 nozzles and GE predicts it will make between 30,000 and 35,000 a year by 2020, requiring between 60 and 80 printers.
Currently each nozzle comprises twenty components that have to be cast, machined and assembled. By using 3D printing it can be produced in one piece resulting in a 75 per cent weight saving and with a predicted five times’ greater life span.
For some observers 3D printing is little more than a sophisticated toy used to manufacture Iron Man’s suit or the giant robot warriors in ‘Pacific Rim’ and that it isn’t the manufacturing game-changer many predict.
This seems to be borne out by a recent report from Morgan Stanley which says that 73 per cent of manufacturers view it as a prototyping tool and only 23 per cent for production. Among the factors holding back the mass adoption of 3D printing is the cost of the machines and the materials used which, in some cases can be 50 to 100 times that of more traditional materials; although both of those arguments have to be countered by the fact that with increased demand will come reduced costs.
What potential users will really want along with reduced costs, is improved speed.
Machines that are ten times faster than they currently are would make manufacturers sit up and take notice, but it doesn’t automatically follow that there would be a total manufacturing revolution overnight or, even, in the long run.
Instead 3D printing, AM, DDM whatever you like to call it, will in the long run become another tool that can be used to design, engineer and manufacture components and intricate assemblies.
Writer: Ian Adcock | just-auto.com