A new technology has come along that is going to revolutionise the world of industrial manufacturing. However, Additive Manufacturing, shortened to AM or sometimes known as 3D printing , is already being touted as the revolution that will change manufacturing in the same way that the world-wide-web changed our ability to access information.
Most of us have now seen some of the examples and applications of AM. The recent news reports about 3D printing guns at home has raised the profile of the subject in the eyes of the general public. However, the industry has been around for many years and originated from the development of Rapid Prototyping which was first commercialised in the late 1980's. The technology has taken 25 years of development before it has reached the level of manufacturing focused industry that we are witnessing today.
Commercialisation of the technology has developed in two key areas. Firstly, the plastic based industry now has a number of techniques for producing parts depending on the cost or quality desired by the user. It is now easier, quicker and more efficient to create certain products locally, often using desktop machines, than relying on the mass market to provide high volume consumer products that large companies believe that consumers need. Maplins have recently entered the consumer end of this market and are taking pre-orders for desktop plastic 3D printers for 699.99. The days of us all printing our own phone covers and children's toys might be some way off, yet we are now on that path.
The metals based industry has developed differently, partly because of the greater operating complexity of the processes. Selective Laser Melting (SLM) is one such process where metal powder (stainless steel, titanium and cobalt chrome for example) is laid down in very fine layers on a machine plate and a high powered laser is then used to melt and fuse the powder particles together (and to the layer underneath) only where the material is required to create the final part. The result is a process where components can be formed in ways that have not been possible using conventional manufacturing techniques.
Many complex assemblies are currently formed from several components which are attached together. This can create problems for reliability of the final part. Imagine a component that can be manufactured using complex internal geometry, such as internal cooling or fluid transfer tubes. What about the advantages that can come from reducing the weight of a component by having hollow structures or adding strengthening features only where required. David Searle, General Manager of Croft Additive Manufacturing Ltd said 'We are seeing more and more customers wanting metal based complex components that can only be produced using AM technology'. AM is still only viable for low volume manufacture. The nature of the process is unlikely to be able to compete on cost for higher manufacturing volumes. But for low quantities, 1 to 100 parts, AM can be cheaper and quicker because there is no need for capital investment in traditional tooling.