Additive Manufacturing: State-of-the-industry rundown

Additive manufacturing, also known as 3D printing, has continued to mature over the nearly 35 years since being introduced commercially. The aerospace, automotive, defence, energy, transportation, medical, dental and consumer products industries are adopting AM for an impressively wide range of applications.

With this vast adoption, it has become clear that AM is not a one-size-fits-all solution. According to the ISO/ASTM 52900 terminology standard, nearly all commercial AM systems fall into one of seven process categories. They include material extrusion (MEX), vat photopolymerisation (VPP), powder bed fusion (PBF), binder jetting (BJT), material jetting (MJT), directed energy deposition (DED), and sheet lamination (SHL). They are presented here in the order of popularity based on unit sales.

Multiple waveguides consolidated into one 3D printed part. (Provided by Swissto12)

An expanding number of industry professionals, including engineers and managers, are understanding when AM can help improve a product or process and when it cannot. Historically, a large initiative to adopt AM has come from engineers who have experience with the technology. Management is seeing more examples of how AM can improve performance, shorten lead times, and create opportunities for new business. AM will not replace most forms of conventional manufacturing, but instead become a part of an arsenal of options for entrepreneurs in product development and manufacturing.

Business cases for adoption
AM applications vary widely, ranging from microfluidics to large-scale construction. The benefits of AM are different depending on the industry, application, and desired performance. Regardless of the use case, an organisation should have a good reason to adopt AM. The most common is for concept modelling, design validation, and fit and function testing. A growing number of companies are using it for tooling and series production applications, including custom product development.

For aerospace applications, weight is a major consideration. According to NASA Marshall Space Flight Center, it costs about $10 000 to put 0.45 kg of payload into earth’s orbit. Reducing the weight of a satellite can save in launch costs.

AM is being used through the entire value chain in the energy industry. For some companies, the business case for using AM is to iterate designs quickly to create the best possible product in the shortest time. In the oil and gas sector, a damaged part or assembly can result in a loss of thousands of dollars or more per hour in production. Using AM to help get an operation back in service can be especially compelling.

MX3D, a manufacturer of large-scale DED systems, released a prototype clamp to repair a pipeline. According to the company, a damaged pipeline can cost €100 000 to 1 000 000 ($113 157 to
$1 131 570) per day.

In 2021, a 3D printed water bushing was installed on an oil rig from TotalEnergies in the North Sea. A water bushing is a safety-critical part that controls hydrocarbon kicks from wells under construction. In this case, the benefits of using AM were shorter lead times and a 45 per cent decrease in emissions, compared to a traditionally forged water bushing.

Another AM business case is a reduction of expensive tooling. Phone Skope designs digiscoping adapters, devices used to connect a phone camera to a telescope or microscope. New phones are released every year, requiring the company to release new lines of adapters. Using AM, the company saves money on expensive tooling that needs to be replaced when new phones are released.

Oil and gas pipeline clamp. (Provided by MX3D)

As with any process or technology, AM should not be used because it is seen as being new or different. It should improve product development and/or the manufacturing process. And it must add value. Examples of other business cases are custom product and mass customisation, complex features, consolidating parts, less material and weight, and improved performance.

Increasing automation
For AM to reach its growth potential, challenges need to be addressed. For most manufacturing applications, the process must be reliable and repeatable. Automating part and support material removal and downstream methods of post-processing will help. Automation also improves throughput and lowers the cost per part.

One of the areas being addressed the most is the automation of post-processing, such as powder removal and finishing. By automating the process for series-production applications, the same technique can be repeated thousands of times. The challenge is that specific methods of automation can vary by part type, size, material and process. For example, automating the post-processing of a dental crown is very different than a part for a rocket engine, even though both may be produced in metal.

This is the viewpoint of Terry Wohlers and Noah Mostow, both of Wohlers Associates, an ASTM International company and it first appeared in Manufacturing Engineering