Future now: 3D printing moves from prototyping to production

The heist at the center of the 2018 ensemble comedy movie Ocean’s 8 required the protagonists to switch valuable jewels for 3-D-printed copies. “Replicators,” which generate food or tools from basic raw materials, have been a staple of science fiction in film and TV for generations. Yet while Hollywood has been quick to seize on the potential of additive manufacturing (AM), these technologies have been slow to find their blockbuster applications in real-world manufacturing.

Compared with traditional production approaches, AM technologies offer four potential sources of value. First, their ability to generate almost any 3-D shape allows designers the freedom to create parts that perform better or cost less than conventional alternatives. For example, an additively manufactured titanium bracket produced by Airbus is 30 percent lighter than its predecessor without compromising performance or durability.

Second, with no need for molds or fixed tooling, every part produced by a machine can be unique, paving the way for mass-scale customization. Test equipment maker Vectoflow uses AM to produce bespoke probes for fluid flow–measurement applications. Its microlaser sintering process enables compact and complex designs with streamlined shapes to minimize impact on the flows being measured. Probes are manufactured in a range of materials to suit the required operating environment, including stainless steel, titanium, and various superalloys.

Third, eliminating time-consuming toolmaking and fabrication operations accelerates both product development and production, reducing time to market. The complex fuel injector head used in the latest Ariane 6 rocket is additively manufactured as a single piece of nickel-based alloy. Previous iterations of this part were welded together from 248 individually machined components.

Finally, AM can simplify the maintenance and support of products in the field, reducing the need for spare-parts inventories by enabling on-demand production of items from digital files. Carmaker Mercedes-Benz, for example, now uses AM to produce spare parts for its
classic vehicles.

The race is on

By 2020, 40 years after the development of the first commercial machines, analysis of the AM sector showed it had grown to a €13.4 billion industry with a 22 percent annual growth rate. The sector remains extremely dynamic, with more than 200 players competing to develop new hardware, software, and materials.

Rapid innovation is driving major improvements in the performance of AM technologies. The newest generations of machines are overcoming many of the perceived limitations of their predecessors, such as by allowing the production of overhanging parts without the need for elaborate printed support structures, or creating stronger parts by controlling the alignment of fiber reinforcements using magnetic fields. The range of materials available for AM systems continues to expand, including high-strength aluminum alloys and medical-grade polymers.

AM systems are getting faster, too. Recent systems based on selective laser sintering (SLS), for example, use as many as one million laser diodes to accelerate the production of parts. And improvements to software and postprocessing technologies are further streamlining the end-to-end journey from concept to finished component. AM technologies pair very well with generative-design systems, which use AI techniques to define and optimize the geometry of parts.

In many sectors, AM has become widely accepted as the fastest and most cost-effective way to produce functional prototypes during product development and testing. AM technologies are also being applied in a growing range of “indirect” applications, including tooling,
spare parts, and fixtures for conventional manufacturing machines.

Not ready for prime time?

Yet while companies have dabbled in using AM for the direct manufacture of final products, large-scale adoption of the approach remains limited. Manufacturers have cited four significant barriers to their use of AM:

  • Hardware. The slow speed and limited build volume available in most AM machines restrict the range of possible applications. Such machines have also proven tricky to integrate into production workflows. An industrial AM production cell may require the user to combine manufacturing, postprocessing, and material-handling equipment from different vendors.
  • Software. AM equipment often relies on vendor-specific control software, with limited integration between different machines or with the equipment and production-control systems used in the wider plant. The technology and know-how necessary to achieve consistent quality and stable productivity is hard to come by.
  • Materials. Today, even common engineering materials are much more expensive when supplied in a form suitable for processing with AM equipment. Polymers must be specially developed for AM machines, a time-consuming and complex process. And the additional processing required to convert metal alloys into a powder form suitable for AM machines adds significantly to their cost. Moreover, not enough of the available AM materials, especially polymers, have been fully certified for critical end-use applications.
  • Services. Industrial users complain that equipment vendors do not currently provide a high level of technical support beyond that necessary to install and commission the equipment. Users would like more help refining component designs to suit specific manufacturing processes, for example, or finding ways to improve the quality, reliability, and productivity of machines once production commences.

While companies have dabbled in using additive manufacturing for the direct manufacture of final products, large-scale adoption of the approach remains limited.

Finally, manufacturers struggle to work out how AM will benefit them. Design engineers typically have limited knowledge of the capabilities of AM systems or of how to design for AM. Simply switching an existing component from a conventional manufacturing to an AM process is rarely advantageous. Instead, the benefits emerge when the unique capabilities of AM are exploited, such as by combining multiple features into a single component to reduce the overall number of parts in an assembly or to eliminate the need for subsequent fabrication or process steps.

Today, the risks of an industrial-scale AM installation are all carried by the end user. And these barriers can make it extremely difficult to build a business case for direct manufacture using AM technologies. Overcoming them is a challenge for the whole sector. Equipment makers could make further improvements in speed, end-to-end automation, and integration with existing manufacturing systems, for example, while materials providers could address issues around certification, availability, and cost.

Yet ambitious manufacturers need not wait for the AM industry to do all the work. Despite the limitations, some industrial users have made significant progress in direct production using AM, developing knowledge and capabilities along the way that will serve them well as the industry evolves.

A medical miracle

One standout sector that has managed to move beyond these perceived limitations is the medical-devices industry. AM technologies are now applied routinely and at scale to produce a wide range of products, including prosthetics and implants, surgical guides, and anatomical models for preoperative planning or patient education (Exhibit 1).

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These applications have succeeded because they are highly customized, high-value applications that offer benefits to patients and clinicians that conventional manufacturing technologies cannot match. Instead of spending time shaving bone or shaping a standard orthopedic implant, for example, a surgeon can simply install a custom device manufactured to match the individual patient’s morphology. AM is even being explored in the pharmaceutical sector, using 3-D printing techniques to produce pills with customized drug doses and release characteristics.

A blueprint for AM excellence

Manufacturers in other sectors, meanwhile, will not be able to exploit the benefits of AM until they take a more holistic approach to AM technologies. That will typically require them to develop novel product designs, manufacturing flows, and business models. The experience of the medical-device sector shows that this can be done.

Exhibit 2 describes a framework that can help a company develop AM capabilities from a cleansheet. It aims to minimize risks and keep the requirement for up-front investment low, while still carrying the organization all the way from initial investigations to large-scale applications.

A structured approach guides the way from additive-manufacturing experiments to at-scale production.

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At the heart of this approach is an “AM center of competence,” which consolidates the organization’s AM efforts in one place and serves as a repository for capabilities, knowledge, and best practices. At the outset, this center of competence can be a small, dedicated team, but it should ideally be outward facing, engaging with external partners to develop knowledge and relationships and sharing what it learns with engineers and other stakeholders across the organization.

Led by the center of competence, the organization’s first forays into AM can be quick and low risk, designed to develop understanding of the available technologies and engender excitement for their potential. The production of prototype parts is the most common AM starting point, while the manufacture of tooling for assembly can help to create excitement among production engineers and shop floor personnel.

While it is experimenting with these simple applications, the center of competence can also begin identifying opportunities for the more systematic application of the AM technologies. This could be done by identifying critical points along the value chain where AM could help, such as by eliminating scrap, simplifying assembly, reducing inventory, or improving the next generation of products.

To explore these opportunities while keeping investment levels manageable, companies can adopt a collaborative approach. By building a small ecosystem of partners, such as AM service providers or design consultancies, companies can gain access to the capacity and expertise needed to experiment with different approaches and technologies. At the same time, leaders can keep one eye on opportunities for future applications to reach real scale. In regulated industries, for example, early certification of promising materials, design approaches, and technologies can provide a competitive advantage by eliminating potential bottlenecks to adoption.

As it moves the most promising AM applications into production, the organization enters a build-and-transfer phase. To identify further potential applications more quickly, companies can codify their growing AM knowledge into design tools, for example. These might include total cost of ownership (TCO) models that make it easy to quantify the costs and benefits of shifting to AM for common applications within the business. In parallel, organizations can intensify their work with ecosystem partners to transfer knowledge as needed and begin to acquire the necessary hardware for in-house production of AM parts.

Once it has gained some experience in direct production using AM, an organization can move into the scale-and-sustain phase, incorporating AM fully into its portfolio of manufacturing technologies. This phase typically involves investment in additional production capacity, the development of standard processes for design and production control, and further skill building for engineers and operators.

An organization with AM capabilities can also start to rethink its business model and identify additional sources of competitive advantage. Can it apply AM technologies to enable the late-stage customization of products, for example, or create limited-run series for certain user groups? Could it use AM as a bridge between prototypes and full-scale production, allowing new products to be beta tested by a select group of customers?

After decades as a bit player, additive manufacturing is on the cusp of stardom. Faster machines, better materials, and smarter software are helping to make AM a realistic solution for many real-world production applications. As the technical barriers fall, the onus is on manufacturers to improve their understanding of these rapidly evolving technologies, building the skills, processes, and business models needed to make additive manufacturing shine in the industrial world.


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