What’s New In Additive Manufacturing?

What’s New In Additive Manufacturing?

Bill King, PhD, Co-founder and Chief Scientist at Fast Radius.

Over the past decade, 3-D printing has transformed from a hobbyist or prototyping tool into an industrial-grade production process, referred to as additive manufacturing. Today, additively manufactured parts are everywhere—from visually appealing consumer goods to the inner workings of automobiles and jet engines. Yet, many engineers and product designers who work closely with other manufacturing methods are still learning about additive technologies and how to sort out today’s very real opportunities from yesterday’s significant limitations.

Until recently, many additive manufacturing technologies couldn’t produce end-use parts. But now, the additive manufacturing industry has developed new materials, techniques and technologies to become a true competitor to more traditional manufacturing processes like injection molding and CNC machining. Still, limited awareness of how additive technologies work, their ideal applications and how they compare to other manufacturing options prevents businesses from taking advantage of the new opportunities additive manufacturing can provide.

How Additive Manufacturing Has Evolved

One of the critical evolutions that makes additive manufacturing suitable for industrial-grade production is the development of new materials. Now, parts can often be 3-D printed with materials that are as strong, durable or flexible as materials used in traditional manufacturing processes. There are additive polymers that can fit almost any material needs a part can have—whether they need to withstand harsh conditions, be a certain color or transparency, give an elastic response or hold up to stringent requirements of aerospace applications. Although 3-D printing materials may have once deserved their reputation as weak or porous, today, there’s a material for almost every application.

Just as new materials have opened up possibilities for additive manufacturing, so have improved processing equipment and technologies. Additive machines today are more accurate and productive. They are capable of making precise parts with tighter tolerances and meeting rigorous specifications, creating identical parts every time. This makes it possible to produce better parts faster and less expensively, such that additive manufacturing is competitive with other manufacturing processes.

As the materials and technologies continue to evolve, so do the processes surrounding production. There are now industrial factories producing additive parts that have all of the equipment, training, institutional knowledge and quality control processes of traditional factories. This infrastructure makes additively manufactured parts as repeatable and scalable as traditionally made products. With factories and robust quality systems, additive manufacturers can produce tens of thousands of identical parts—a far cry from the limited capabilities of the hobbyist machines many still associate with 3-D printing.

In addition to having the capacity to manufacture production-grade parts with additive technologies, businesses need to be able to make an economic case to do so. Many of the factors already mentioned contribute. The high quality of additive parts and processes helps ensure improved productivity and reduces the waste of time and money. The increased speed of modern 3-D printers has led to significant improvements in unit economics from lower production costs. Plus, industrial factories make it more economically feasible to scale additive production.

There’s another economic advantage: the ability to print identical parts at scale without tooling. Traditionally, injection molding is thought of as the least expensive way to manufacture plastic parts. However, injection molding requires the time-consuming upfront process of creating the metal mold used to manufacture the final products. Even for low-complexity parts, these tooling costs can be tens of thousands of dollars. For high-complexity parts, the costs can increase by an order of magnitude. These costs are amortized across the parts made using the tool, so when production volumes are low, the unit costs are high. Especially for low or moderate part volumes, skipping the tooling process can lower the overall cost-per-part. Plus, by skipping the tooling, it’s possible to get products to market faster, which also reduces overall costs.

With the emergence of these opportunities, companies are increasingly leveraging additive manufacturing for production. We now see success stories in every industry. The automotive and aerospace industries, with materials that can meet their high safety standards, have embraced the ability to design using new ways to make lighter parts without sacrificing strength. In healthcare, we see surgeons using scans to rapidly manufacture custom surgical guides and models with 3-D printing. And in consumer goods, like sporting equipment, businesses are taking advantage of new geometries to create better aesthetics and performance for everyone from Olympians to student-athletes.

What Comes Next For Additive Manufacturing

The landscape for additive manufacturing and its use in industry has completely transformed over the past 10 years. Additive processes have become increasingly popular because of the design freedom, flexible manufacturing and agile supply chains they can create. Although all of these factors will continue to drive the popularity of additive manufacturing, one factor is crucial to creating truly revolutionary opportunities for adoption, efficiency and invention: software.

Engineers use software for all of the key steps in product development: design, analysis and product performance predictions. With additive manufacturing, it’s possible to go directly from these software tools to an industrial-grade part. The direct connection with the 3-D printers’ software makes it easy to capture more precise data points within the digital thread.

The integration of engineering, production and supply chain management software accelerates the speed at which manufacturers can bring products to market. Driving efficiency, improving productivity and streamlining processes all hinge on the way manufacturers collect, process and analyze data. As every business looks to bring products to market faster and build advantages over competitors, 3-D printing has created new opportunities to do so with innovative design, production and fulfillment, as well as with data collected along the way.

The advances in additive manufacturing materials and technologies over the past decade have made a significant impact, enabling businesses to explore new products and build better supply chains for the critical parts that keep our world running. Now, think about what we can accomplish in the next decade building on this foundational knowledge with increasingly sophisticated technology. The future of additive manufacturing is only limited by our imaginations.

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