In previous posts, we have described what additive manufacturing consists of, what its strong points are and we have also wondered why its impact has not been as big as some have predicted.
To be honest, and beginning by thinking about the end, as with any new technology, there were those who predicted a disruptive and almost immediate change, which later did not turn out to be the case – neither in terms of timeframes nor in terms of predicted impacts.
Under the umbrella of additive manufacturing or 3D printing, we have such different technologies as SLM, EBM, FDM, SLS, SLA, etc. and such diverse sectors as medicine, food, automotive, aeronautics, electronics, etc.
Therefore, before drawing hasty conclusions, it is appropriate to segment and analyse this type of manufacturing in detail and with some perspective. It is then that we will see that the steps we all expected at the beginning are gradually taking place.
In aeronautics, for example, it’s already a reality. Both Airbus and Boeing use parts made through additive manufacturing in their aeroplanes. In fact, Boeing recently announced that, in cooperation with Norsk Titanium, it would integrate titanium components made with additive manufacturing into the structure of its Boeing 787 Dreamliner, said components having been approved by the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration), the entity that regulates civil aviation in the USA.
Still, leaving aside such specific sectors as the aeronautics sector (or medicine, where personalised prostheses are also a reality), the leap to large-scale additive manufacturing has not yet been taken.
Only rapid prototyping, which is already common, is a reality today. Additive manufacturing is used to make prototypes and short product runs, but large-scale, series production processes have not yet been implemented.
The development of new printing materials and technologies will be key in taking the leap to series production processes. Today, technology is simply not mature enough in terms of important aspects such as dimensional and quality control, traceability, etc.
However, even more important is for us to move on to additive manufacturing-oriented design. We cannot carry out a comparative economic analysis between different manufacturing technologies if the design of the parts that we are going to obtain is not specific for this technology. By this we mean that, if we analyse the profitability of using additive manufacturing to make a part designed for a plastic injection process, the results will never be satisfactory.
In order to proceed, specific software is required; but we designers also must change the way we work; in the education of the future designers/engineers, additive manufacturing must be taken into account and additive manufacturing-oriented design must be part of the curricula for these students.
There is increasingly more software created for the optimisation of designs for 3D printing. To give a few examples, 3-Matic by Materialise, Netfabb by Autodesk or INSPIRE by Solidthinking offer topology optimisation, lightening, etc., which result in organic geometries that are impossible to reproduce using traditional manufacturing technologies and that provide significant advantages due to their weight/robustness ratio. When we –the designers– create the parts exclusively for 3D printing, that is when the advantages of this technology will truly be seen.
Therefore, we must open our minds, question all our previous designs and simplify assemblies by combining several parts into a single one, thus coming up with geometries that –until now– were impossible and which improve the performance of our designs. In this way, we can fully exploit the possibilities of additive manufacturing and we will be in a position to take full advantage of the potential that these new materials, technologies, etc. will offer us in the near future: from realities such as electronic printing and printing with conductive ink or polymer-conductive extrusion materials (things that we already work with at IKOR) to more distant technologies that will allow us to use bio-printing, meta-materials, etc.