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Additive Manufacturing – A New Tool in the Manufacturing Toolbox!

Blog Written by: Hutch Hutchison, Principal, Technology and Engineering, FuzeHub
This will be the first in a series of blogs on the topic of Additive Manufacturing (AM)  – to give small to mid-size manufacturers an overview of the entire industry, at least as I have uncovered thus far. The intent is to give manufacturers enough information to begin making decisions about incorporating AM into their manufacturing processes.
By way of introduction, I have been working on a grant from NIST MEP, in New York, working on a service for small to mid-sized manufacturers, to be offered through our ten Regional Technology Development Centers,( part of NYSTAR/ESD), which provides “Virtual” Design and Prototype resources. As I have paid much attention to Prototype resources, I have become very familiar with the Rapid Prototype technologies that have recently morphed to become viable production tools.  I share my findings in the spirit of advancing your knowledge of this exciting technology.
This week we will define AM:

WHAT IS ADDITIVE MANUFACTURING?

According to ASTM F42 (Yes at least one standard has been published In 2010!) Additive Manufacturing is the “process of joining materials to make objects from 3D model data, usually layer upon layer, as opposed to subtractive manufacturing methodologies, such as traditional machining.” It is a process that builds a solid part, layer by layer, with the building supervised by a CAD 3D Model file. It istermed “additive” as it adds material to form the object, as opposed to traditional “subtractive” methods, whereby materials are removed (subtracted) from a block to form an object. (E.g.: A lathe used to carve away material to form the net shape of the object.)
Fundamentally Additive Manufacturing is best described as it often is as “3-D printing”. That is, send a file to a machine and produce a solid representation of the object, in a fairly broad range of materials. It is easy to think of it this way, and we’ll revist the topic in future posts.

HISTORY

The very first AM Devices were created by 3-D Systems Corporation in Valencia, CA in 1986.  Their idea was to expose a photoactive polymer, with a laser, guided by the CAD file to produce a singly part. It was labeled “Stereo Lithography”. Some of the first parts produced with this technology had seriously flawed (“stepped”) surfaces, and extremely fragile parts (“Worse than Eggshells”)  The idea caught on, and was embraced as a wonderful, quick, and relatively accurate way to prepare a prototype, which became the mainstay of the industry for decades.
Next in sequence of development came a process called “Selective Laser Sintering”, invented by Carl Deckard, a graduate student at the University of Texas in 1989. This technology employed a CAD-File-guided laser beam to fuse powdered nylon into a net shape, layer by layer. The technology has endured, and subsequently was adapted to fuse metal powders, extremely important in the morphing of this technology from prototype tool to manufacturing of real parts.
As AM has grown, it has been broadly accepted as a PROTOTYPE tool, especially since early materials were somewhat costly, run times very long, and surfaces crude, so that only the proof of concept was available. As materials costs have dropped and processed streamlined, the technology has become a valuable tool in the production of small volumes, with high quality surfaces, and has led to limited acceptance as a production method, thus referred to as Additive Manufacturing.

GROWTH

It took several years for the technology of 3-D printing to even appear on a financial radar screen, with a combined $100K revenue, roughly split between services and machines. As mentioned earlier, the successful creation of tangible prototypes was marred by poor finishes and fragile materials.  Relatively slow growth resulted in $400K in ten years. The industry somewhat exploded thereafter, resulting in an overall Compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 26% to 2011, with sales of $1.7Billion. Experts suggest continued rapid growth, to 3.5 Billion by 2017, and $5.2 Billion by 2020!
Join us next week for a discussion on how AM Works, generally, and with some details about the two most popular methods of 3-D printing.

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