3D printing is rewriting the manufacturing manual

It sounds like Star Trek, but is already reality and, as Tom Moore discovers, a new manufacturing technique could soon revolutionise production

3D printing has raised eyebrows in recent years, with stories of machines that can make your favourite chocolate bar in your own home, sitting somewhere between myth and reality. But the economic advantages that come with this technology has led to a sharp uptake in the number of manufacturing companies using the additive layer technology.

Just as a computer connects with a printer at the push of a button, the same effect can now be achieved with three-dimensional objects. Eliminating the “subtractive” manufacturing process of machining a part, layers of material are instead gradually deposited to build 3D parts made from plastic or metal, the preferred materials for functional parts.

Jonathon Meyer, who leads research into 3D printing at pan-European technology group EADS, says the traditional subtractive processes of drilling, cutting and boring often results in 95 per cent of material used in the manufacture of aerospace components being wasted. 3D printing uses only the material it needs, minimising the waste of costly titanium alloys used in the manufacture of parts for aircraft wings at the Airbus factory in Broughton, Flintshire.

Seven different manufacturing technologies sit under the umbrella of 3D printing, including selective laser-sintering and fused deposition modelling, but the common concept is of building up rather than reducing down. In most of these processes, each layer is formed and bound together by lasers that melt the raw material before it cools and hardens to construct a part that can be used in many applications. Crucially, 3D printing removes the arduous time spent making casts and other tooling.

Theoretically, 3D printing means that anything can be made anywhere

The value of 3D printing to the global economy is set to quadruple by 2020, from sales of $1.9 billion in 2011 to more than $7.5 billion by the end of the decade, according to a recent Technology Strategy Board report. But Robin Wilson, lead technologist for high-value manufacturing at the organisation, says that is conservative. “The global industry could be worth over $100 billion by 2020 if some technical challenges are overcome,” he says.

Theoretically, 3D printing means that anything can be made anywhere, which could bring manufacturing closer to the end-user so that the costs and risks which come with transporting goods are reduced. “Designs can be sent and downloaded around the world for local production, with no large tools, no long production line and little labour needed, just space for the printers,” says Dr Phil Reeves, managing director at 3D printing consultancy Econolyst. “This would take manufacturing away from manual work and towards higher-paid design engineering work, while reducing the air miles accumulated in manufacturing supply chains.”

Currently, the majority of commercial-grade parts can only be printed in one material, limiting what can be made, although research is being carried out so that electrical products made of numerous metals and plastics – mobile phones, tablets and laptops – can be printed in future, vastly reducing labour from the process.

In reality, 3D printing is far too slow to replace current machining and assembly processes for mass-produced goods. However, Mr Wilson notes that 3D printing will enable consumers to customise products in a way that greetings card makers, such as Moonpig, can do on 2D printers. “Retailers will be able to offer greater levels of customisation as people can design their own jewellery and have it ready the next day,” he says. Be prepared to see this technology on the high street soon.

CASE STUDY

Lasers make lighter metal

The AM250 is a laser-melting machine for manufacturing functional metallic parts using the 3D printing processes – AM stands for additive manufacturing, the term that industry uses to describe 3D printing.

Driven by digital data created from 3D computer-aided design (CAD) software, the machine’s laser-melting systems distribute a thin layer of fine metal powder less than one twentieth of a millimetre thick, before fusing it where needed using a guided laser.

The microscopic beam is so powerful it causes the powder to form a molten pool of metal that behaves much like traditional welding processes. The weld pool is guided over the powder surface, fusing the surrounding material and the layer below to create the shape.

The machine unlocks the possibility for customised implants to be economically produced, something particularly useful in surgical procedures that reconstruct the face to treat diseases, injuries and defects. It matches the original bone geometry to ensure that the patient maintains the same facial bone structure, retaining the original shape of the patient’s face.

Aerospace and motorsport companies are making lighter components with the AM250 machine, reducing the overall mass of the aircraft or car and leading to better fuel efficiency. The Atkins project, a government-funded study carried out by the Additive Manufacturing Research Group, found that the topologically optimised designs of the first class monitor arms made by the AM250 for TVs on Virgin Atlantic flights saved more than 50 per cent of the component’s original weight. 

TCT LIVE

3D printing and additive manufacturing

If you want to learn more about how innovative technologies are being utilised in both industry and the consumer world, visit TCT Live. Staged at the NEC in Birmingham on September 25 and 26, the UK’s leading showcase for 3D printing, additive manufacturing and other cutting-edge product development techniques is a free-to-attend event. It features more than 100 exhibitors and over 70 free seminars from organisations including Prodrive, GlaxoSmithKline, Loughborough University, Renishaw and Foster + Partners, sharing how they use these technologies to aid, improve and speed up their manufacturing processes.