Traditional notions of “manufacturing” have been turned on their heads with additive manufacturing (AM). The additive process delivers a variety of benefits that expand AM’s reach and applicability within—and far beyond—traditional fields.
Many different materials can be used in AM, everything from metal to carbon fiber to food or even live biological cells. Because of the additive process, designers can create increasingly sophisticated parts, including complex internal structures that couldn’t be machined, but that preserves part strength and structural integrity while also saving money and weight. Because it’s easy with AM to make those internal structures, even when expensive materials are used, part makers often need to use less of them, while still being able to make optimal use of material properties—some estimates suggest that AM processes can save as much as 90% of raw material costs. And beyond the part level, the sheer speed of creating parts can make entire manufacturing processes faster.
But what’s even more impressive about AM is that it’s making “manufacturing” relevant to unconventional industries—even to situations where every part is custom. In this first of two blog posts, we’ll explore how AM can bolster classic manufacturing processes, and in part two, we’ll look at the growing case for AM to make custom parts, sometimes in the most unlikely places.
AM Shakes Up Traditional Manufacturing
First and foremost, AM has made the concept of rapid prototyping possible for manufacturers by dramatically reducing the time required to create new prototypes for evaluation and testing. For many product or part developers, rapid prototyping has meant a fundamental change in the design process, relying more heavily on fitting actual prototypes together than on spinning and testing computer models. Faster prototyping means faster design and a shorter timeline for getting products to market.
In fact, one AM services provider estimates that by utilizing digital manufacturing throughout the product development lifecycle—from rapid prototyping to product launch—development time could be more than halved over traditional manufacturing methods.
But the product development phase isn’t the only way AM can improve traditional manufacturing. AM can make tooling for the manufacturing process cheaper and faster. In addition, sometimes AM can even produce parts on-demand throughout the process—whether for updates to the product line, updates or replacements for tooling, or short-run parts themselves.
Of course, for manufacturers who pump out hundreds of thousands of parts every week—or day—AM is best used for prototyping and tooling. But for other industries, such as aerospace, that need product design as well as small-quantity production, the ability to produce actual production parts has delivered even more benefits. Real-world examples include Boeing, which uses an AM process to build parts for aircraft. GE has also begun incorporating 3D printing into its jet engine manufacturing process, allowing for a reduction of part weight and yielding a part that’s five-times more durable. In 2016, NASA reported a dozen successful test firings of an all-3D-printed rocket engine. And SpaceX has tested an engine for its reusable Raptor propulsion system that contained more than 40% 3D parts by mass.
Then there are the industries that we don’t normally associate with the term “manufacturing.” The capability of AM to make changes to a design easily, to create custom parts with every printing, and to create those complex internal structures have driven a huge interest in AM by companies in such far-ranging industries as medical devices, food, household items, and automotive supplies.
In the next blog post, we’ll look at industries new to the idea of AM’s perfect suitability for creating custom parts. But it all comes down to this bottom line: regardless of where AM is plugged into a manufacturing process—whether at the prototyping stage or production—AM speeds it up, and the faster products get to market, the better for the manufacturer.
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