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Additive Machines Go Mainstream

Bill Koenig
By Bill Koenig Senior Editor, SME Media

Industries such as aerospace, medical and automotive are embracing 3D printing amid advances in technology and materials.

A bracket made through additive manufacturing on a 3D Systems machine. (Provided by 3D Systems)

Additive manufacturing, and AM machines, have gone mainstream over the past five years. The technology has advanced. More materials, including metals and composites, are being used for 3D printing, where parts are made from a digital design. Industries from aerospace to medical to automotive have embraced additive as a means to design through prototyping, and, in some cases, produce production versions of finished parts. Announcements of new materials and machines have become common.

“I think medical and aerospace were prominent early adopters,” said Scott Schiller, global head of customer and market development, 3D printing for HP Inc., Palo Alto, Calif. “Now we’re seeing much more mainstream applications,” he said, which are being used “more broadly across the entire product lifecycle.”

Most importantly, 3D printing advancements have occurred beyond the roster of industrial giants.

Materials Lead the Way

“The big advancements and what pushed 3D printing into new applications is material development,” said Andrew Edman, industrial manager for product design, engineering, and manufacturing at Formlabs, a Somerville, Mass.-based additive technology developer and manufacturer.

“SLA resins in the past were very brittle, but material properties are getting better and better,” he said. “Today, SLA resins have a place in functional prototyping and increasingly in production scenarios, whether that’s manufacturing jigs and fixtures or end-use parts for consumers.”

“Up until recently, low-cost printers couldn’t print in much more than cheap, often brittle plastic,” said Nicholas Sondej, senior applications engineer at 3D printer builder Markforged, Cambridge, Mass.

Now, he said, “manufacturers have access to inexpensive machines that can print carbon fiber composites or MIM-standard metals. Additionally, AM machines today ship with significantly more automation, reducing the prior need for constant maintenance and upkeep, not dissimilar to the development of CNC machines.”

Also helping additive are improvements in photonics, which involves generating and controlling particles of light. “Photonics is one of the core technologies we rely on,” said Scott Turner, director of advanced research and development at 3D Systems, Rock Hill, S.C.

“More lasers and more optical devices that can operate at lower cost” are “making the job of creating new (3D printing technologies) much easier,” he said. Photonics are improving, in part, because of the development of self-driving cars, he said. “We’re reaping the benefits of industries” that are developing such technology.

General Electric is just one of the prominent industrial companies to bet big on 3D printing. The process has long held the promise of enabling new, more efficient designs. GE, for example, has introduced fuel nozzles and aircraft engines requiring fewer parts (thanks to 3D printing) compared with conventional manufacturing. Additive also is a way to produce new spare parts for old parts and tooling no longer in production but still in use.

HP’s Schiller said additive is helping to speed development of new components and products.

Focus on High-Volume Parts

The interior of a Markforged additive manufacturing machine. (Provided by Markforged)

HP, at the 2018 IMTS in Chicago, introduced a technology it calls HP Metal Jet, which is intended to produce high-volume parts. The company established partnerships with GKN Metallurgy and Parmatech. GKN will deploy the technology to service customers such as automaker Volkswagen AG. Parmatech will use HP Metal Jet technology to make parts for customers, including makers of medical devices.

“We’re seeing more consistency” in manufacturing interest in 3D printing, Schiller said. “Not the least of which is our own company. We’ve surprised ourselves.” However, “we’re still very early in the journey. Every company is dealing with the urgency to get to market. The risk of getting your design wrong goes up.” But 3D printing, he said, allows faster development and the chance to ensure a manufacturer gets things right. “This is something that gives you some breathing room…The risk profile is reduced.”

What’s more, 3D printing is being combined with subtractive machining in the form of hybrid machines that both print and cut parts. Mazak Corp. is among those pursuing a hybrid strategy. In addition to making standard machine tools, the Florence, Ky.-based firm makes hybrid machines that use powder and hot wire for 3D printing applications.

With powder, “We’re continually adding new alloys and mixed alloys,” said Joe Wilker, Mazak’s advanced multi-tasking manager. Titanium, he said, is “a challenge but we’re going to do it. We need to build more of a powder database. Where do I set my machine parameters? Sometimes we have to use trial and error.”

At the same time, he said, “We have a lot of hopes for hot wire. The deposition rate is exceeding our expectations. We’re pushing six pounds an hour.” Using wire, “titanium becomes very simplified. It’s less cost. It’s pretty much a MIG welder inside a machine tool.” Mazak sees 3D printing supplementing its main business. “Will 3D printing replace machine tools? No,” Wilker said. Hybrid machines, he said are “another tool in the toolbox.”

Software Improves

Jon Carlson, a product manager at GF Machining Solutions, Lincolnshire, Ill., said software is a major factor for additive.

“The two biggest things we’re seeing is the evolution of software, creating more speed and faster build times,” he said. Software is “more user friendly.”

3D Systems and GF Machining announced a joint machine, the DMP Factory 500, which they described
as “a scalable manufacturing system designed to transform metal manufacturing.”

GF Machining is part of Swiss company Georg Fischer. Some 3D Systems machines will be built at Georg Fischer factories.

“I think the market has done a very good job,” said Carlson. Alloys, he said, have been developed for medical and aerospace markets. “The next phase we’re starting to see is materials developed for entirely new markets. Software updates will continue to evolve so we can speed up the additive process.”

Companies expect more work for 3D printing.

“Opportunities for 3D emerge often when there’s a time crunch or some issue when you can’t do things the normal way, when there isn’t time to outsource parts or have them machined,” said Edman of Formlabs. “I’ve seen lots of examples that can only be described as happy accidents.”

What kind of accidents? “Where they tried something on the printer, often sheepishly admitting they didn’t expect it to work—and when it does it permanently changes how that organization approaches solving problems.”

Ford’s 3D Printing For Tooling

Sparks fly during an AM operation on a 3D Systems machine. (Provided by 3D Systems)

In late 2018, Ford Motor Co., Dearborn, Mich., conducted a media tour of its advanced manufacturing center in Redford, Mich., outside of Detroit. Additive manufacturing is a big part of the facility.

The center tests 3D printers from HP, EOS, Stratasys and other vendors. The number and types of machines vary over time. At the end of 2018, Ford had 23 printers and was working with an additional 23 additive manufacturing companies.

Ford has used 3D printers to make small tools, jigs, and fixtures for factories. The company said its Michigan Assembly Plant, which assembles the Ranger pickup, has five 3D printed tools.

The 3D printers are part of a broader Ford effort to modernize the automaker’s manufacturing operations.

Greg Hayes, director of applications and consulting for EOS, said his company wants to move more into production parts.

With new materials, he said, “it’s important these materials open up new applications…You don’t need a lot of spare part stock. You can make more in an on-demand way. Using additive allows you to unlock new applications.”

So what happens in the next five years or so?

“New alloys and new alloy materials are going to play a huge role in the future,” Hayes of EOS said. “Machines are on a predictable path of becoming faster and larger.”

The Future: Cloudy but Bright?

“Reading crystal balls is not easy,” said Turner of 3D Systems. “In order to realize all of the potential benefits from additive manufacturing, you have to have software that can go beyond defining just the shapes in a computer. New software will need to be developed that can control material properties within a shape. I also think the future is bright for new alloy blends in metal printing…That will drive the need for better and lower cost additive manufacturing systems. What applications and products benefit first is anyone’s guess.”

The next five years, within the industry, is expected to be as active as the previous five.

“Additive machines will become production modules in work cells that create a complete product,” Turner of 3D Systems said. “I think the days of individual machines only doing one thing are coming to an end, and fairly quickly.”

Said Formlab’s Edman, “Additive manufacturing technologies open up brand new ways of designing parts, consolidating assemblies, re-imagining supply chains—but all of those benefits are not a given.”

“I think we are at a point of convergence, with engineering know-how, powerful software
tools, and more competitive metal printing costs, where the applications landscape is opening up significantly,” he continued. “We’re at a moment where the economics and ease of printing parts in metal is fundamentally changing, but that change is still going to take time.”

Industry executives expect more progress in the next five years.

“Software updates will always continue to evolve so we can speed up the additive process,” said GF Machining’s Carlson. “We’re going to see all of that get better.”

Added Hayes of EOS: “With the number of legitimate manufacturing projects going on, we have reached critical mass. The last few years, we have turned a corner. People are using [AM] to make parts.”

“If you’re looking out over five years, you see additive used for more mass production,” said HP’s Schiller. “People are looking for the opportunity to collapse supply chains. There are impacts to cost reductions, for sure.”

“There’s just a ton of conventional metal casting happening right now from additive manufactured digital patterns,” said Turner of 3D Systems. “It’s going to be a melting pot of conventional manufacturing and additive for the near future.”

The question is how long all of this will take.

“We’re at a moment where the economics and ease of printing parts in metal is fundamentally changing, but that change is going to take time,” said Edman of Formlabs. “I expect aerospace, medical and automotive applications to remain the primary targets for 3D printed metal components.” Still, he said “the share of more mundane uses like industrial equipment and appliance parts” will “rise quickly.”

“The next big advance needs to focus on even higher precision in printing parts,” said Markforged’s Sondej. “Despite the fact that we can approach around 100 microns in repeatability, mission-critical applications—especially in aerospace—require that the part is nearly perfect each time you print.”

Also, the Markforged applications engineer expects “we’re going to see even more materials, from new types of composites and plastics to new forms of manufacturing metals. But the true advances in AM technology will come from designing systems that align with the needs of large manufacturers.”

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