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A new manufacturing blueprint?

03 October 2014 Alex Chausovsky

For the better part of 500 years after Johannes Gutenberg's invention of the movable-type printing press-a transformative development that played a key role in the spread of the Renaissance, Reformation, Age of Enlightenment, and the Scientific Revolution-information was consumed largely via the printed page. To that end, forests were felled and transported to mills where they were cut and ground into pulp to make the paper upon which ink would be stamped en masse via printers-the resulting books and newspapers distributed to readers by hand or vehicle. While a marvel of mass production and scale, it wasn't necessarily the most labor- or energy-efficient method of information delivery.

Then came the digital age. Knowledge transfer was suddenly "democratized" further by the ability of anyone with online connectivity to consume information-digitized, customized, and delivered instantly-for free. No need for paper, news carriers, or a subscription. Moreover, everyone suddenly gained the ability to become his or her own publisher. Traditional business models in the newspaper, print, and related industries were quickly under assault as consumers flocked to the new technology. How could print publishers adapt and monetize their work in a world with new competitors and in which information was essentially given away? Two decades on, many of those that have managed to survive are still trying to figure that out.

Product manufacturers and their vast supply chains may soon be faced with a similar conundrum as yet another disruptive technology gains momentum. The technology-a completely different kind of printing to Gutenberg's, 3D printing-is on the verge of transforming the way many products are designed, manufactured, and distributed. 3D printing, an additive manufacturing method for creating physical objects from three-dimensional digital models, has the potential to drastically alter the costly processes associated with industrial production, including tooling, machining, welding, and assembly. Unless product manufacturers and the shippers, materials suppliers, distributors, and others who service them adapt their operations to this emerging technology, they may not survive.

Addition vs. subtraction

Traditional manufacturing methods typically involve subtractive processes. A block of metal, plastic, wood, or other material is whittled to the desired shape and size via machining, boring, grinding, and cutting. (As Michelangelo once said, "Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.") Constituent parts are then variously joined, welded, and assembled to create a finished product. These processes, whose seamless execution virtually defines the industrial revolution, nonetheless result in considerable waste of materials, time, and energy. Moreover, there are limits to the complexity of the shapes and forms that can be created.

By contrast, 3D printing is an additive manufacturing process in which a physical object is created from a three-dimensional digital model by laying down many successive thin layers of a material. The earliest form of this process-stereolithography-was developed and patented in the 1980s by Charles Hull, who used a computer-controlled moving laser to trace a cross-section of a part's pattern onto the surface of a liquid resin, which hardened on contact with the laser to form one layer of the part. After each such "pattern" was traced, the platform upon which the part was being built was lowered and new layers added in the same fashion until the part was completed.

The thickness of each layer depends on the intricacy of the design and may be as fine as one-thousandth of an inch. That hints at both an advantage and a disadvantage of additive manufacturing. While it can be used to produce complex designs-far more so than traditional forming methods such as casting, forging, and machine tooling-the production time is markedly slower than that of standard manufacturing methods.

For this reason, the use of additive manufacturing to date has been predominantly for rapid prototyping (RP). Using 3D printing for RP permits manufacturers to generate a prototype quickly and cheaply to examine an object's design, test against other parts for fit, uncover any flaws, and determine final specifications before committing to production. Traditional prototyping, involving the use of machine tooling or injection molds to create a model, takes considerably more time and expense.

The Ford Motor Company, for example, currently has five 3D prototyping centers, three in the US and two in Europe. These RP centers produce hundreds of 3D-printed parts per day from materials such as silica, nylon, sand, aluminum, stainless steel, and titanium. An example of a prototype Ford part produced via 3D printing is the intake manifold, one of the most complicated parts of an engine. Using traditional production processes, creating the part can take up to four months and cost up to half a million dollars. However, using 3D printing technology, Ford engineers can produce a prototype within four days at a cost as low as $3,000.

Dawning of the 3D printing revolution

In recent years, 3D printing has expanded beyond rapid prototyping. In part, this has been due to the expiration of patents covering a method of printing known as fused deposition modeling (FDM), which uses a computer numerical controlled (CNC) nozzle to extrude a thin filament of melted thermoplastic layer by layer to form an object.

After patents covering this technology expired in 2009, the sector grew rapidly as a result of open-source platforms. There are now dozens of manufacturers offering hundreds of different FDM machines to consumers. Moreover, the price of these machines has dropped from more than $10,000 per printer to less than $1,000, fueling the development of a consumer market for those who wish to create their own 3D-printed objects at home.

In January 2014, key patents on the 3D printing process known as selective laser sintering (SLS) expired (and others are slated to expire later this year). SLS is a technology that uses powerful lasers to melt powders-typically metal, but also plastic, glass, and ceramics-and produce high-quality parts from industrial-grade materials. In recent months, several companies have announced that they are working to develop lower-cost SLS-based 3D printers, mainly for printing in metal. These printers are targeting price points in the tens of thousands of dollars-an order of magnitude lower than current SLS printers, which range in cost from a few hundred thousand dollars to in excess of $1 million.

Industry observers generally believe it is unlikely that SLS printers will experience price declines similar to those of FDM machines, as it is significantly more difficult to build an SLS machine that uses lasers and powders than it is to construct an FDM printer that uses heating elements and spools of plastic wire. However, with more people becoming involved with SLS technology, the price to own an SLS printer is likely to drop measurably-a key factor for the 90% of manufacturers worldwide that are small- to medium-sized enterprises (i.e., employ fewer than 500 workers).

Further helping to usher 3D printing technology into the manufacturing mainstream are improvements in printers' speed and throughput-to date the technology's Achilles heel. Last year, 3D Systems, a manufacturer of both stereolithography and SLS printers, announced that it had partnered with Google on a research and development project to create modular mobile phones at mass production-level speeds and volumes.

The company's methodology substitutes the "reciprocating platform" of many 3D printers-in which the base upon which the object is being formed is static for each print run, slowing printing speeds-with a continuous-motion system designed to achieve print speeds 50 times faster than those of current 3D printers. If this process is realized commercially, 3D printing will have been demonstrated to be able to create parts in production volumes approaching those of traditional manufacturing methods.

Dismantled supply chains?

In any case, 3D printing is already impacting manufacturing in a profound way by lowering the barriers to entry for upstart companies. Optimizing for lower-volume production reduces the cost and risk to manufacture products for lesser-capitalized companies, as they are freed from having to produce tens or hundreds of thousands of units to recover fixed costs. Products can moreover be printed without tooling, retooling, and with little or no assembly, further reducing costs.

3D printing also has the potential to change or eliminate whole steps in the supply chain. If a manufacturer or consumer can print his own part or product, the assembly, warehousing, and distribution/retail functions can be bypassed. From a global standpoint, on-demand printing potentially renders unnecessary many manufacturers' outsourcing of operations to regions that offer low labor and assembly costs.

The potential effect on global trade and shipping is obvious. While shipment of finished goods and products from lower-cost manufacturing hubs is likely to be reduced, hauling of raw materials from low-cost production areas is likely to increase-the importance of container ships replaced by bulk cargo carriers. Taken to its logical extension, ships themselves could become mobile "factories"-picking up raw materials and assembling finished parts and products from them via the use of 3D printers during ocean passage. In fact, on-board 3D printing is currently being explored by shipping giant Maersk as well as the US Navy. Although their efforts are currently focusing on the production of replacement parts for the ships themselves, it is certainly feasible that once the technology is proven, other applications will follow.

The automotive aftermarket represents another supply chain potentially threatened by 3D printing. Rather than order replacement parts from OEMs and other suppliers, auto shops could instead print them on-site. Similarly, 3D printing may now equip them to repair or replace obsolete parts-either by locating the relevant digital design or scanning the broken/obsolete part itself, digitally repairing it, and printing it anew.

A hybrid view of the future

As an emerging technology, the entirety of 3D printing's implications across the manufacturing sector is as yet difficult to foresee with any certainty-particularly as new market entrants and business models materialize and companies experiment with incorporating 3D printing into their existing operations.

An example of the latter is the development of a hybrid process that combines an (additive) 3D printer with a traditional (subtractive) CNC machine. Pioneered by Hybrid Manufacturing Technologies, the technology allows the user to integrate the complexity of structure afforded by 3D printing with the speed and polished finish achievable via CNC machining. The machine has particular suitability for the repair of worn parts-jet turbine blades have been successfully restored in this way-but can also be used in the fabrication of new components or the addition of features and functionality to existing parts.

Japanese machine tool manufacturer DMG MORI is also introducing a similar solution. The company launched its LASERTEC 65 3D machine for the first time in the US in September. The machine is equipped with a powerful diode laser for metal deposition, while the five-axis machining platform enables highly accurate subtractive operations to be carried out. The metal deposition process, which is performed via a powder nozzle, is up to 10 times faster than laser sintering in a powder bed, and all common metal powders can be processed, including steel, nickel and cobalt alloys, brass, and titanium.

Another recent development, which could overcome one of 3D printing's limitations, is NASA's invention of a technique to allow the printing of multiple metals or alloys within a single object. The process involves the deposition of layers of metal on a rotating rod, transitioning metals from the inside out rather than adding layers from bottom to top as in traditional 3D printing. The technique allows for the continuous changing of the composition of the alloys so that the finished object incorporates different materials but has no welds, providing superior strength and endurance for harsh environments such as those found in space.

NASA used a multi-alloy printer to manufacture a telescope mirror mount in which the use of different alloys will help minimize the opportunity for thermal expansion and the development of structural cracks in the cold environment of space. The agency said it will consider using the technique in the fabrication of its spacecraft, which cannot be repaired once deployed, for future interplanetary missions. The technique has obvious applications in the automotive and commercial aerospace markets, where operation in high-stress environments makes the avoidance of welds, bonding, and other joining methods a priority where possible.

Winners and losers

As 3D printing is more than just a manufacturing process-it is a digital technology as well-its proliferation raises intellectual property (IP) and other regulatory concerns. With just a 3D printer and scanner, a consumer can purchase a product, recreate a design and distribute it via the internet, or manufacture and sell it, dealing a potentially crippling blow to the original manufacturer's sales and its return on initial investment. Likewise, a 3D printer could be used to manufacture and distribute a gun or other regulated weapon.

The IP issue echoes one the recording industry faced after the advent of digital music files generated a huge increase in the trade of copyrighted songs and a decrease in legal music purchases.

Will manufacturers follow the path of the recording industry and sue customers for copyright infringement? Certainly, aggressive enforcement of patent and trademark laws will be carried out. But ultimately the survivors, and winners, in this emerging manufacturing environment are likely to be those companies that embrace the new technology, experiment with it, and alter their business models to best capitalize on it.

While the specific impact of 3D printing on "traditional" manufacturing is not yet known, some things are certain: additive manufacturing is here to stay, its technology will continue to improve, its role will expand, and new market entrants will devise ways to monetize it.

3D printers will never replace the factory floor. But they are likely to change its look and operation. Tools such as hybrid CNC/3D printers and multi-material 3D printers look certain to take their place beside such standard manufacturing devices as milling, grinding, and plastic injection molding machines to save energy, time, materials, and labor and increase part/product strength, customization, and design complexity. Companies that view 3D printing only as a threat to their traditional business model, and not an opportunity, may not survive the impact of this most disruptive technology.

The demise of forging?

Machine builders continue to push the limits of conventional design to address the size limitations of current additive manufacturing technology. An example of this trend comes from Sciaky, a US-based welding solutions specialist serving the aerospace, defense, automotive, and healthcare industries. Sciaky's VX-110 Electron Beam Additive Manufacturing (EBAM) system is one of the largest 3D printers in the world.

With a build envelope that can reach up to 19' x 4' x 4', the system allows manufacturers to produce very large parts and structures that are not feasible due to the size limitations of most industrial-grade metal 3D printing systems available on the market today. Starting with a 3D model from a computer-aided design (CAD) program, Sciaky's articulated, moving electron beam welding gun deposits materials such as titanium, tantalum, stainless steel, and Inconel via wire feedstock, layer by layer, until the part reaches near net shape. Deposition rates of Sciaky's EBAM process range from 7 to 20 lbs per hour, depending on part geometry and material selected, and some post-production machining is required.

This machine will have major implications for the metal forging industry. The two biggest issues with forging, which undoubtedly creates very high-quality metal products, are its long lead times and high costs. Metal additive manufacturing solutions, both laser and electron beam based, address both issues. Lead times are lowered dramatically compared with forging, often from months to days and even hours, while production costs are lessened significantly due to the decrease in material consumption and the elimination of transport from the forging site to the final destination. The combination of these factors and recent developments in the field of metal 3D printing, such as SLS patent expirations, which are expected to drive down the cost of metal 3D printers in the coming years, are aligning in ways that may eliminate the need for forging entirely in the not-so-distant future.

Alex Chausovsky Senior Principal Analyst, Industrial Automation, IHS Technology
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