Most machine shop owners and operators know about metal additive manufacturing (AM). They know it can make shapes they can’t match by machining alone. They also know that 3D printed “builds” require other machines and in-house expertise for post-processing. This includes cutting a finished piece off the build plate, removing support structures on walls or inside passageways, and a variety of surface-finishing steps as well.
What they also know is that metal AM is still a nascent technology, and only recently has become capable of making low-volume, mission-critical parts. The world of proven machined steel and aluminum billets is centered around decades of materials research and a deep understanding of tool behavior, software programming, process control and quality measurement.
A number of these fundamentals have been missing from existing 3D metal printing solutions, or are only in the early stages. The metallurgy of parts produced even across a single build plate can be suspect. Identical parts and specs executed in separate “family” machines can vary significantly. Calibration of systems is critical, yet frequently drifts. However, AM has still advanced because printed parts offer higher performance and reduced time to market.
However, I now feel that things have changed with the next generation of AM machines—three of which I have recently added to my shop. I’m producing 3D printed parts for a variety of industrial customers, with confidence that I can validate part quality. What does this mean for me, you and an industry under stress? It’s an opportunity to pursue innovation and be an early adopter of new technology.
It’s no secret that the world economy is in a downturn, or that even before the pandemic, traditional manufacturing was in a state of adjustment. Key markets such as oil and gas were and are experiencing overproduction and price collapses that directly impact demand for manufacturing. Commercial aviation was struggling, notably in maintenance, repair and operations (MRO) with the unreasonable costs and delays inherent in producing replacement cast parts—and now with reduced demand for aircraft.
It’s a time to diversify and reinvent. Oil, gas and nuclear energy have been our bread and butter, given that Duncan, Oklahoma is also the birth place of Halliburton. But now it’s best for us to take what we know as a contract manufacturer and expand into other markets, such as aerospace, defense and industrials.
Why can we diversify in this way? My wife Teri and I have co-owned and operated our turnkey machining business, Duncan Machine Products (DMP) in Duncan, Oklahoma, since 2007, and we were watching AM developments for many years before we decided to investigate further. At IMTS 2018, we went looking for something different—a disrupter in a disruptive space. There were smaller machines, larger machines, faster machines—but nothing really new to me. I missed seeing the VELO3D booth that time, but we soon visited them at their headquarters in Campbell, California, and it was their tightly controlled build-chamber process and measurement system that gave me confidence to invest in 3D metal printing; it was evidence that the previous nascent technology had reached a state of maturity that could consistently print higher-performance parts.
And here we are today integrating additive parts and assemblies with our certified machined components, able to attract business in totally new markets.
There are several things machinists can appreciate, and be relieved from, when working with these new systems. Support structures have previously been problematic for the highly advanced designs and complex geometries that can be imagined in AM. It can be laborious removing some part designs from traditional build plates and machining away supports for intricate external features. Post-processing can be complex or impossible. The newest metal AM machines can produce parts with far fewer supports necessary—and often without support structures at all.
Innovative passageways and internal channels, the jewel of AM capabilities for everything from engine fuel systems to pumps and compressors, have previously been limited in diameter as well as held to 45-degree angles in AM machines. Like a restrictive undercut in machining, that’s the end of the story for reaching some design goals. That’s no longer a problem with the next-gen systems: Support-free angles can be as low as five degrees or less. A near-pure atmosphere in the build chamber and a non-contact re-coater allow for high-aspect, thin-walled products such as heat sinks and impellers. There’s far better metallurgy as well. Altogether, just more production factors that translate into ultra-high-performance products.
This breakthrough AM functionality facilitates new ideas, opens new markets and can help drive manufacturing economies by cutting time, costs and simply improving radically on what could be done before.
Are We Ready?
The reason I’m calling all this out is that I feel machine shops can now operate AM with the same confidence that they have in running machining cells. Operators trained in CNC and finishing equipment don’t need special training for the new metal AM systems. The systems automatically calibrate every aspect of the build and reports, layer-by-layer, the quality and manufacturing conditions underway.
AM has finally reached the point at which it can be just another tool in the tool box—one that creates amazing parts and functionality with minimum subtractive cleanup, post-printing. That’s going to help localize our jobs from offshore supply chains to all in-house. It will create huge throughput, and move us into work once reserved for investment casting, but with the quality control sometimes missing in cast parts.
There has been hesitancy across the machining world about stepping all-in on AM due to the perceived early risks and customer conversion efforts, among other reasons. However, AM is no longer only for large OEMs and dedicated service bureaus. Nor is it just for the most exotic parts. Next-gen AM is for machine shops that already know how to consult and build, and who want to stay relevant and profitable in the changing markets of this changing world.