A few years ago, says Tim Shinbara, vice president of technology at the Association for Manufacturing Technology, AM was no more than an attraction in the Emerging Technology Center at IMTS. But it made its way to the main show floor.
At the present time, AM/3-D printing is marginal for most industrial applications, but highly used in medical, and growing in aerospace and automotive. However, its industrial use has gained significance, and this year was the first time that AM has its own pavilion at IMTS.
Many more industries are now turning to the technology for prototyping and tooling applications. But Shinbara believes that as process stability and material offerings improve, the demand from heavy equipment, automotive and aerospace manufacturers will increase.
He also suggests that there is a trend in the U.S. toward the use of AM for large components, in the construction, heavy equipment and transportation sectors.
He notes the case of the LM3D car from U.S.-based Local Motors. About three-quarters of the vehicle is printed using a blend of 80% ABS plastic and 20% carbon fiber. The company aims to produce 90% of the car in a single piece through 3-D printing.
Richard Martukanitz, director of the Center for Innovative Materials Processing through Direct Digital Deposition (CIMP-3D) at Penn State University, says that although AM technology is in its infancy, the list of potential applications is growing quickly.
Almost all large companies have active programs [to identify] where AM may improve their products, and they are now actively pursuing analysis involving product cost, reliability, and performance.
But how does this play out when it comes to large 3D printed products? Dr. Martukanitz explains:
Large-scale AM is already available through the Sciaky Electron Beam Additive Manufacturing Process. This has the ability to produce near net shapes, requiring final machining, up to 5 m in length. Powder bed fusion processes are also scaling to larger sizes for producing parts up to 1.2 m in size having high feature quality.
Vader Systems has developed a technology for liquid metal 3D printing that uses wire as an input material and produces dense parts at high speeds.
Magnetojet moves molten metal using electromagnetic pulses, creating discrete droplets on demand. Early interest has come from aerospace and defense companies, explain co-founders Scott and Zack Vader.
Because our technology replicates inkjet printing, and additional print heads can be added without great expense, it is highly scalable. We have a vision of a machine that contains hundreds or thousands of print heads which will make the 3D printing of large parts very attractive.
GE Aviation has used AM for many years, explains Mike Cloran, marketing manager at its Additive Development Center. As well as employing the technology in the design and development of its new jet engines, it is now also creating fuel nozzle tips for CFM International’s LEAP engine and engine sensor housings for the GE90-94B engine.
AM changes how certain parts are made, allowing GE to engage in designs that would be impossible to create using traditional methods. Another potential advantage is reduced part count, by replacing assemblies with single parts. Also, with AM lighter parts can be designed and manufactured, thereby saving weight and increasing fuel efficiency of the engine.
However, he says:
Today, there is a limited build envelope, a limited number of alloys and a limited amount of speed and efficiency to build the parts. But GE expects to see more alloys produced more efficiently and this technology will become ubiquitous not only in aerospace, but across industries.
An AM Future
Dr. Martukanitz believes AM’s niche is in lower-volume components that benefit by customization or advanced designs for improved performance.
When the selection of the part is performed correctly, AM competes or may surpass traditional manufacturing processes in terms of cost. But the printing of 3D components takes time—20- to 50-hour build times are quite common. However, systems developers are improving the technology for faster build times.
While large AM components currently are attracting attention, Shinbara has doubts about the mass customization of large parts.
For mass production of big-sized 3D printed products to be competitive, there needs to be drastically improved deposition speeds and many more engineered materials with comparable mechanical properties to at least wrought, if not forged, products.
Larger products tend to require more arduous mechanical property or environmental conditions.
[These] are most affordably met with metallic or at least the carbon-based composite materials currently available.