For all the benefits of 3D printing and additive manufacturing, industrial use is frequently restricted to rapid prototyping. This is set to change as industrial pioneers master the art of printing with raw materials such as liquid metal, glass and silicone. The experts we interviewed at MIT and well-known 3D printing companies believe we’ll be able to print with any kind of metal.
And for our readers hungry for coming developments in the mobile and telecommunications sectors, read our special fair coverage featuring stories on new, low-power wide-area networks and mobile cybersecurity.
Rather than sticking with traditional plastics, industrial 3D printing is pushing technological boundaries to work with liquid metal, silicone and even glass.
For all the benefits of 3D printing and additive manufacturing, industrial use is frequently restricted to rapid prototyping rather than manufacturing due to...
Offering previously unimaginable complex designs, additive manufacturing holds the promise of the next industrial revolution. But for mass production, speed needs to improve.
The production floor of the future will be strangely quiet. No hissing welder machines, clanging hammers or buzzing milling machines. Instead, 3D printers will labor away discreetly, creating three-dimensional metal objects from the ground up, layer by layer.
While 3D printing for consumers has received a great deal of attention, the technology, also known as additive manufacturing (AM), could have an even greater impact shaping the manufacturing of the future.
According to the Wohlers Report 2016, the technology has moved from niche to mainstream, with total growth of 31.5% since 2013. Terry Wohlers is president of Wohlers Associates, a leading independent consulting firm with AM expertise.
In the past we’d see a few research institutes and maybe large corporations buy one or two machines for prototyping, but now they’re putting in orders of 5-10 machines, because that’s what’s required for production.
Eye-Opening Fuel Nozzle
One of the companies investing heavily in additive manufacturing is General Electric. Since 2010, GE has put $1.5 billion dollars into AM, and intends to invest a further $1 billion by 2020. This will make the technology a key part of GE’s evolution into a digital industrial company.
Rick Kennedy is spokesperson for GE Aviation’s additive manufacturing business:
Additive manufacturing allows you to design components in a way that you couldn’t do with conventional manufacturing. Parts that have complex holes, tunnels and passageways are very difficult to do accurately with welding and brazing.
GE’s crowning moment came with a jet engine called LEAP. Using a method called direct metal laser melting (DMLM), GE Aviation was able to create a new type of fuel nozzle using parts that are laser-drawn by melting together layers of fine metal powder as thin as a fifth of a human hair. This allowed engineers to design the nozzle as a unit rather than 20 individual parts. This reduces the number of brazes and welds, and makes the nozzle lighter and more durable.
Since then, GE has developed a turboprop engine for the Cessna Denali, with 35% of the engine made using AM. Three-dimensional printing also will play a role in creating the largest jet engine ever built, the GE9X.
That’s a revolutionary change for us or for anybody. Things that used to require 300 parts we can now do in one part.
He adds that it takes about two days to produce this turboprop engine.
Smoking Hot Metals
Previously, 3D printing was mostly done with different plastics, but today’s buzz around AM owes a lot to the introduction of metal powders. GE is using a very durable material called cobalt-chrome in their engines. Other promising materials include titanium aluminide, both light and sturdy. For Terry Wohlers,
Metals are smoking hot right now.
AM could be poised to transform the automotive, aerospace, medical device and other industries. Companies as diverse as Boeing, Nike and Ford are now 3D printing away.
AM allows engineers to experiment with new designs at less risk because parts can be produced instantly with hardly any limits on shape. Customizing products also becomes easier, as well as short-run manufacturing, which was previously uneconomical. Companies can now hold digital inventory that will only be manufactured on demand rather than producing thousands of items and storing them in a warehouse.
Slow Speed is a Buzzkill
Courtesy of HP
Seeing a 3D printer create complex metal parts from scratch may look like magic, but the technology has its drawbacks. First, creating an object layer-by-layer is time-consuming. GE’s fuel nozzle takes several days to manufacture, says Terry Wohlers:
Speed is very, very important, because if manufacturing is too slow, it becomes too expensive.
Last year, HP debuted the Jet Fusion 3D Printing Solution, said to speed up production by 10 times at half the cost of current additive systems.
That will have a huge impact, but they’re just starting to roll it out to customers. Until we get the actual numbers, it’s premature to draw any conclusions on speed improvements.
The additive process is also limited by the size of the 3D printers themselves, typically no larger than 6 x 6 x 3 feet. The limited ability to create larger objects makes some experts question whether additive manufacturing is ready for prime time.
Eventually, it will be possible to do mass production, but that’s a long time into the future. Right now, the low-hanging fruit is to do complex parts and low volumes.
Rick Kennedy is more optimistic:
The additive process is not necessarily less expensive than traditional casting from the fabricating standpoint. But additive has so many huge benefits. Greater engineering flexibility and creativity in designing the part is the key. Also, the parts are stronger and lighter. The costs are going down as the speed of the machines is improving. So the parts can be made much quicker. It’s going to be very disruptive, and traditional supply chains are going to be changed. But it’s still a new manufacturing process.
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Sigfox, Qowisio, LoRa by Objenious, Matooma, RPMA by Ingenu. These IoT networks are engaged in a tech battle. With the IoT sector expected to reach 21 billion connected objects in 2020 according to IT research firm Gartner, the need for efficient connectivity is huge. But between narrow-band, spread spectrum and mobile networks, what’s the best choice? It depends on use. This infographic contains some answers.
*Low-Power Wide Area (LPWA) is also called Machine-to-Machine connectivity, Wireless Sensor Networking or Internet-of-Things. It offers low-cost, low-power, battery-efficient connectivity.
*Narrow-band IoT (NB-IoT) is an IoT-specific LPWA technology for sending short messages using little power.
*Ultra narrowband (UNB) technology is a long-distance (20 to 40 km) communication protocol transmitting over a very narrow spectrum channel. Little power is needed to transmit at a low air data rate.The object must transmit no more than 10% of the time.
*Random Phase Multiple Access (RPMA) is an LPWA technology exclusively for wireless M2M communication in the 2.4 GHz band. It uses direct sequence spread spectrum (DSSS) which modulates the carrier and spreads the transmission across a broader spectrum, with no transmission duration limit.
*LoRa (Long Range) is an LPWA network specification using spread spectrum technology. Unlike DSSS, it uses an unmodulated carrier. The communications between the device and the gateway are spread across various frequencies, enabling differing data rates. Range is 50 km, though airborne tests of 140 km have been successful.
Bouygues is a founding member of the LoRa alliance created a year and a half ago and consisting of 400 industrial companies and 30 telecommunications firms worldwide. The Bouygues subsidiary, Objenious, is responsible for deployment of the network in France among other companies such as Orange.
At the 2015 Euromold, DirectIndustry e-magazine met with 3D Ceram, a French company specializing in the 3D printing of ceramic objects. We subsequently discovered that ceramics could be made with lasers more rapidly than by the traditional process (find our article here). Two years later, CEO Richard Gaignon tells us about the latest evolutions in 3D printed ceramics.
DirectIndustry e-magazine: What’s new at 3D Ceram since Euromold in 2015?
Richard Gaignon: Our business model has evolved. We still print parts, but we primarily sell turnkey systems for 3D printing ceramic objects. We sell the entire production line—not just printers, but also cleaning booths and kilns. We provide hardware, software, training and a hotline to help clients print exactly what they want.
DI e-magazine: Do clients have to use your ceramic materials or are they free to use any ceramic paste?
Richard Gaignon: We currently have two types of machine: the Ceramaker 900 prints to (300x300x110 cm), and the new Ceramaker 100 (100x100x100). But, while most 3D printers are limited, in that you can use only materials developed by the manufacturer, our Ceramaker is flexible. Customers are not forced to use our ceramic pastes, but can use their own. And we help them transform their ceramics into printable form so it works with our machine, including parameter sets required by different ceramics. This year we’ll launch a hybrid machine capable of simultaneously printing with several ceramic materials.
DI e-magazine: Who are your clients and why are they interested in printing ceramics?
Richard Gaignon: The market demand comes from research institutes, aeronautics, aerospace, biomedicine and the energy field. These industries want to produce parts in-house rather than subcontracting them to avoid revealing often strategic information about their development efforts. To avoid leaks, it’s better to buy a machine than to send out plans. In aeronautics, the most commonly printed ceramics are foundry cores for making the internal elements of airplane turbines. In the energy sector, it’s the manufacture of gas turbines. But it’s also to make high-temperature heat exchangers able to withstand fluids containing corrosive chemicals.
DI e-magazine: Are you working on improving printing speeds?
Richard Gaignon:This is not a current concern because there isn’t great demand for it in ceramics. It’s a problem for those who work with metal or plastic. But in ceramics, printing time is shorter than firing time. Thus, the focus is more on shortening firing time than printing time. That requires working on the organic constituents.
DI e-magazine: Why would a company choose 3D printing today?
Richard Gaignon:Initially, it’s to create complex forms we can’t make any other way. But beyond the design and luxury sectors, few people are truly interested in complexity. The key question is cost. Today, a 3D printed part is more expensive than the same thing made by injection or pressing. But 3D printing becomes interesting when it’s used to make a single element with several functions. If a single part can replace three, that simplifies assembly and installation. In the end, the overall process will cost less.
DI e-magazine: What attracts industry to 3D-printed ceramic objects?
Richard Gaignon: Developing ceramics is time-consuming and expensive because of tooling costs. In the past, this required large-scale production to make it pay. In contrast, 3D printing ceramics offers shorter and less expensive development because there’s no tooling. So you don’t have to make 10,000 items to amortize a mold. This is not mass production, but mass customization. The other plus is that you can produce small quantities of objects, for example foundry cores, which avoids having to restart large-scale production. This is important in industries that must be responsive and flexible, and that want to test shapes before launching production.
The adoption of additive manufacturing technology has accelerated in recent years thanks to advances in material science and design software. Use is growing in aeronautics and the automotive sector, and the nuclear industry is pushing into the game.
In a December 2016 report on additive manufacturing, Gartner projected that 10% of manufacturers will use 3D printers in some part of their operations by 2020. The trend is particularly strong in verticals such as aerospace and automotive, but also in unexpected sectors.
General Electric is one of the biggest investors in industrial additive manufacturing, spending an estimated $1 billion on the technology across its wide range of businesses. The company has set an ambitious goal of using more than 100,000 parts made by this process in GE Aviation alone by 2020. The division’s LEAP jet engine already incorporates 3D-printed fan blades and other parts developed using materials such as carbon fiber and ceramic composites.
Initial funding is a relatively modest $2 million, but it indicates just how seriously government and industry are eyeing this technology to revolutionize their processes.
According to Fran Bolger, manager at GEH, the division is leveraging in-house knowledge from other GE entities already employing additive manufacturing.
However, the challenge for the nuclear division is that each product made from a new material must be carefully scrutinized by regulators to ensure it meets all applicable federal safety standards. This testing includes stainless steel and Inconel parts to determine how they will respond in highly-radiation environments. For Bolger:
We’re in a development stage right now. But we’re well positioned to move forward with additives.
Local Motors, a startup that creates design communities around different projects, also has been aggressively exploring how to reinvent automotive manufacturing using 3D printing.
In 2014, LM and its partners, Cincinnati Incorporated and Oak Ridge National Laboratory, printed an electric car called the Strati at the International Manufacturing Technology Show in Chicago (read our special IMTS edition here).
The car was printed over 44 hours using carbon fiber-reinforced ABS plastic. The company plans to open a microfactory in Knoxville, Tennessee this year, where it will print Stratis for consumer purchase.
3D Printing Takes Flight
In addition, new jobs are emerging. Aeronautics giant Airbus Group in France has created an executive position called ALM (additive layer manufacturing) roadmap leader in its Innovations department.
The company is already using the technology for tooling, prototyping and manufacturing parts for test flights, commercial aircraft and satellites. To date, titanium alloys, glass and concrete have been used, while aluminum alloys and nickel are under study.
Airbus is printing crew seat panels and mounting brackets for various parts. Besides reducing waste material, these elements are lighter and stronger, reducing replacement costs and fuel consumption.
Gartner analyst Pete Basiliere explains that while a single printed component may not make an impact, extending the process to multiple parts could change the game:
If they can lighten the load of each of those little components, incrementally it doesn’t matter. But if we start to talk about a thousand components, it adds up.
Strong, Cheaper, Lighter
According to Pat Dunne, vice president of advanced application development for 3D Systems, another attraction of additive manufacturing is that it allows companies to produce far more complex designs at lower cost than traditional methods.
There is no longer a correlation between cost and complexity. Designers can engineer a product that is better and more efficient. That’s really what’s driving this trend now.
Camille Rustici is a Video Journalist and the Editor-in-Chief for DirectIndustry e-magazine. She has years of experience in business issues for various media including France 24, Associated Press, Radio France…
Lindsay Clark is a freelance journalist specializing in computing. He has won industry awards as news editor at Computer Weekly. He has also written for newspapers including The Guardian, The Financial Times…
Chris O’Brien is based in France and is European Correspondent for VentureBeat and a freelance writer. Before moving to France, he spent 15 years in Silicon Valley covering technology for the San Jose Mercury News and the Los Angeles Times.