Count the benefits
Additive manufacturing has two enormous advantages over traditional manufacturing methods. First, it liberates designers and engineers from the limitations inherent in conventional manufacturing: using additive manufacturing techniques can allow complex parts to be produced with relative ease.
Second, producing modified parts can now be done at a fraction of the cost – simply tweak the 3D CAD model and off you go. Perfecting a component, a process that was once painstaking and expensive, is now simply a matter of saving a new file. Currently, AM is most concentrated in the medical, automotive and aerospace sectors.
Medical engineers can design and build implants, prostheses, hearing aids and so on. Plastic surgeons can build a new nose, for example, by adapting the individual designs to each customer using a 3D model.
AM is now capable of delivering a huge range of small, largely plastic parts with increasingly complex structures.
Looking ahead, the focus for those at the cutting edge is twofold: develop new materials and drive the process of making stronger, more complex components with significant mechanical properties.
Thales has been at the forefront of this new technology, fostering the growth of AM in France, and is a leading member of a consortium that is aiming to place Europe’s aerospace industry at the centre of the AM revolution. The Additive Manufacturing Aiming Towards Zero Waste and Efficient Production of High-Tech Metal Products (AMAZE) project is a 28-member group of manufacturers across Europe, including Airbus Group, AVIO, BAE Systems and Volvo, committed to working together to both foster AM across the continent as well as developing components and techniques.
Additive manufacturing and 3D printing have been, more than most new technologies, the subjects of some very outlandish coverage. Various reports claim the technology will allow criminals to print their own disposable handguns and builders to “print” a new house for pennies. Not likely, says Dickens, but he does acknowledge that there are some truly staggering opportunities ahead.
In the meantime, the truly game changing application of AM techniques may be much closer to home. “I think it’s just a matter of time before you see people making replacement organs using this sort of technique,” says Dickens. “You could take living tissue and build up an object in a similar way to the sort of cheaper printed processes that are being used now. “People would be working on multiple types of living tissue and doing it in a very controlled atmosphere, so that the stem cells don’t die. We will be building living tissue, but it’s going to be probably another 10 or 20 years before we start to see much of that happening – but it is starting to happen now. “
Food for thought indeed…
The cost of a 3D printer capable of producing small plastic parts is now running under US$1,000, but for a machine capable of making metal parts, it can be anywhere between US$150,000 and US$1m.