Additive manufacturing is this month’s focus in Manufacturing Engineering. As you’ll read in this month’s pages, AM is spreading its reach even as there are challenges to more widespread adoption.
The evidence of AM becoming mainstream is everywhere. It is even evident today. While this is especially true in medical applications, where delivery and business models (and reimbursement guidelines) are catching up with the clinical uses of AM, other industries are accelerating adoption as well. As you will read in the piece by Wohlers Associates on the state of the industry, aerospace, automotive, energy and consumer goods are also adopting AM. Each industry and each application is developing its own set of business models, technologies and use cases. In the March edition of the Voices AMplified supplemental section, Jennifer Coyne talked of how AM helps old-line manufacturing like trains and locomotives.
But what is most telling is how important supporting technologies are. Wohlers Associates writes of increasing automation of AM processes, like powder handling, as being important to get costs down. Most telling to me, Coyne also stressed the importance of having a manufacturing execution system (MES) for those who wish to do volume work using AM. Yes, supporting data systems like MES and enterprise resource planning and product lifecycle management are important to AM, even as they need to be tuned to its unique data requirements. You will also read in this edition about how CAD/CAM suppliers are adapting to AM as well. Software and data systems designed for traditional manufacturing won’t cut it. Users that recognize this and suppliers increasingly supplying software for AM reveal an industry becoming mature.
Another important sign of maturity is the complex types of machines available and the growing number of competent suppliers offering them. There are machines for various forms of plastic, metal and composites on offer. You can also make ceramic pieces or use AM to make molds for casting. AM machines can produce minute, precision parts with micron-level accuracy while others are creating rocket nozzles 11 feet tall.
New materials rank high in new product announcements. Compared with traditional machining or casting, possibly the weakest value proposition of AM is its relatively limited palette of materials to choose from. But as time goes on and new materials are qualified, that difference will shrink.
Perhaps the next indicator of maturity will be in people—specifically, how comfortable they are in using AM-specific language, like build plates and voxels. Look for technician qualification certificate programs—even whole degree programs around AM engineering—as well as the ability of future machines to combine engineering disciplines, like pieces that can incorporate mechanical and electrical properties. AM’s prime growing years are still ahead.
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