The Future of Additive Manufacturing

Dr Phil Reeves, Principle Consultant at additive manufacturing consultancy Econolyst, gives an assessment of the future of the industry.

Given the current high levels of public and media interest in 3D printing it’s often hard to believe that the technology was in fact invented almost 30 years ago. Since those early days, Rapid Prototyping (RP) technologies have matured and developed significantly -; with larger and faster machines, greater material choice, greatly reduced capital cost and more affordable ownership. Fast forward 30 years and RP is now accessible to small business, entrepreneurs, innovators and big business alike.

Pushing the Boundaries

Alongside this increased accessibility, the most profound change to have taken place during the past three decades has been the transition of these layer manufacturing technologies beyond ‘front-end’ product development and prototyping and into mainstream manufacturing and production.

Stratasys Leads the Way

The current Stratasys portfolio of machines is no exception to this transition. The FDM Fortus technology has proven itself as a highly competent solution in the manufacture of jigs and fixtures, where process accuracy and stable materials, such as ABS, have been used to make assembly fixtures and drilling jigs for a wide range of aerospace and automotive applications. Higher temperature FDM materials such as Ultem (a PEI material) and PPSF have also found applications in the manufacture of composite lay-up tools and even in the manufacture of aluminum press tools, taking the technology way beyond its prototyping roots and out into shop floor applications.

In other industries, such as the medical and jewellery sectors, the Stratasys Polyjet technology has also found applications beyond prototyping, where it is currently being used to make casting patterns and assembly tools. Using higher temperature materials such as the ABS-like material, it is also finding applications in the manufacture of simple low-volume tool cavities for injection moulding and vulcanised rubber moulding. It is also being used ‘day-in day-out’ to make literally thousands of vacuum forming tools used in the production of patient specific dental aligners.

In short, Stratasys technologies have already moved well beyond just product development and prototyping, and out into the traditional factory and supply chain -; so what is next for this exciting and valuable technology?

Direct Part Manufacture

There has been a lot of talk about ‘Rapid Manufacturing’ or direct ‘Additive Manufacturing‘ as it is now called. The concept of AM is inherently simple, but the business benefits that it can enable are profound. The idea behind AM is to go directly from CAD to 3D printed part without any tooling or intermediate production step -; where the final component is produced directly using the additive manufacturing machine, such as Stratasys FDM or Polyjet.

But why would companies benefit from such a radical change in their supply chain?

The most obvious benefit of end-use product Additive Manufacturing is the mitigation of tools. For example, by 3D printing a product in ABS there is no need to manufacture an injection moulding tool. This has obvious economic benefits when bringing a new product to market, but also allows for the cost-effective manufacture of much lower volumes. In essence, AM enables users to make economic batches of just one part, or multiple batches where every part is different -; something unthinkable using mould tooling.

Because AM uses a layer-by-layer approach to part production, it is also possible to make highly complex shaped products with little or no cost penalty. Typically with injection moulding, increasing design complexity often means increased tooling cost -; but without tooling, such Design for Manufacturing constraints are largely removed. AM can also make shapes that are beyond the capability of other processes, allowing the consolidation of multiple part assemblies, and the development of new product and design concepts previously unseen by consumers.

By coupling geometric complexity and single batch economic production, AM is perfectly suited to the manufacture of personalised products. One example being the production of medical devices such as hearing aids, which are personalised to the individual patient and 3D printed to order using Stratasys Polyjet technology.

Additive manufacturing also presents a number of possible environmental benefits to both manufacturers and consumers. Mitigating tooling and printing to order reduces waste and stock-holding. Eliminating tooling also allows parts to be made in multiple locations nearer to the customer -; reducing transportation and speeding up supply. Geometric flexibility also allows parts to be cost-effectively manufactured that are optimised in terms of strength and weight. This is vital in sectors such as aerospace and automotive manufacture, where part weight has a direct impact of fuel consumption, transport cost and the environment.

As a totally digital approach to manufacturing, AM allows companies to be more responsive to the needs of customers, enabling manufacturing on demand, as and when parts are needed. In some cases even allowing consumers to be part of the product design processes, where web based design software tools are used to allow true mass personalisation of consumer goods, which are then 3D printed.

Of course AM has its limitations, and cannot be applied to all applications immediately. However, with such a vast array of materials and machines, Stratasys technology is well positioned to respond to the growing number of AM applications that are emerging from almost every sector. From automotive and aerospace, to consumer goods, healthcare, entertainment or leisure -; AM has its applications and Stratasys provides solutions.

Dr Phil Reeves (PhD Engineering, BEng Hons Manufacturing) is the managing director of Econolyst Ltd and an experienced researcher and strategist on the future of the 3D Printing & Additive Manufacturing economy, it technologies, business implementation, education and supply chain. Dr Reeves also works with governmental agencies globally to assess the impact of 3D Printing & Additive Manufacturing at a local, national and international level. Dr Reeves is a regular conference speaker at events around the world. He is also a visiting lecturer on Additive Manufacturing to a number of UK and overseas universities.

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