By James D. SawyerExecutive Editor “It’s almost unbelievable what’s happening out there.”
When Terry Wohlers has that to say about additive manufacturing (AM) you can be sure big things are going on. Wohlers, principal consultant and president of Wohlers Associates Inc., is considered by many to be the leading light in the world of 3D printing and AM. His keynote presentation leading off the final day of RAPID 2014 capped a well-attended, high-energy event.
Wohlers began his address on the state of AM by saying that he is excited to wake up every day “because I know I’m going to learn something that we didn’t know about the day before or at the earliest last week.”
On top of that, he said, interest in AM is at an all-time high. He believes the tipping point that saw AM begin to spread like wildfire in the public imagination happened in the third quarter of 2012. What ignited the wildfire in his estimation were things such as the advent of low-cost 3D printers, high-end applications such as a full lower jaw created via AM for a patient in Europe, confusion between high-end and low-end applications in the public mind and the news that a gun had been manufactured via 3D printing.“You can debate the merits of doing so,” he acknowledged, “but the manufacture of the gun certainly generated a lot of attention.”
Wohlers cited reports in other media—particularly The Economist and Manufacturing Engineering—as well as the establishment of the America Makes innovation institute as other things that have put AM over the top. In fact, he noted, the AM industry has had a CAGR of 32.2% over the last three years. In 2013 alone AM saw growth of 34.9%, to $3.07 billion. In terms of using AM to produce parts, that arena experienced 65.4% growth in 2013 as part of its nine-fold expansion between 2003 and last year.
And like a snowball going over the top and rolling downhill, AM is picking up speed and getting bigger. Wohlers noted that 3D printers costing less than $200 are now available and that Peter Sander of Airbus’s Innovation Cell says Airbus will have hundreds of additive manufacturing machines making airplane parts within five years. Sander has a long-term goal, according to Wohlers, to use AM to reduce the weight of an airliner by 1–1.7 t.
Other examples of the growth of AM Wohlers pointed to were the announcement of a hybrid additive/subtractive machine tool by DMG More Seiki and the launch of a kit by Hybrid Manufacturing Technologies to convert CNC machines to dual mode systems.
And there is likely more to come. On June 17, a mere five days after Wohlers gave his presentation the last patent underlying additive manufacturing through laser sintering will expire, opening the door, Wohlers said, for anyone and everyone to delve into that market.
More good news comes from the fact that new materials are being developed for AM as well. But not all the news is good Wohlers admitted.For one thing, AM is still too expensive and slow for adoption by the largest mass producers such as automakers.
Another drawback is that topology optimization, which helps come up with the strongest and lightest part designs for additive manufacturing, is not integrated into CAD. How long this situation lasts is uncertain because Wohlers said that Autodesk, Siemens and Dassault are looking at filling this void.
Among other limitations to AM Wohlers mentioned were wall thickness (perhaps wall thinness is a better way of putting it), the design of supports and anchors and the size of holes and internal channels in a part.
Overall, though, the picture Wohlers painted is quite bright, especially for AM used in production. While additive manufacturing as a tool for prototyping is just hitting the early stages of maturity, he said, production via AM is really just scratching the surface of what is possible.