Much of the focus in the technology world currently is on artificial intelligence, machine learning and big data – and how they will affect the way we use products and how machines operate. But developing just as quickly, although with slightly less hype, is 3D printing, or additive manufacturing (AM), which is going to have at least as big an impact on how we make things as AI et al. The process creates products by depositing layers of material, generally ground metal or plastic, to a template, lasering that material into place and repeating the process to build the required product – anything from replacement hips to jet engine parts.
While much of the initial focus was on the consumer side, two recent stories illustrate the scope of 3D printing’s potential in industry – Computerworld reported that researchers at MIT have created 3D-printed graphene, the one-molecule-thick wonder material, to make a material that they say is “lighter than air” but 10 times as strong as steel. If it can be scaled up, it could help to lightweight products such as aircraft, cars and filtration devices, saving huge amounts of fuel, costs and carbon emissions.
At the other end of the scale, CNN reports on a Dubai-based start-up called Cazza that says it can 3D print 200m2 of concrete a day, using a 3D-printing crane it calls the “Minitank.” By automating the process, the company says it can build structures more than 50% faster than conventional methods allow.
From materials a single atom thick to multi-storey buildings, the potential for the technology to change the way industry operates is huge. Most applications are not so eye-catching, of course, but additive manufacturing is already being put to good use by companies such as the industrial giants GE and Siemens.
GE bought Germany’s Concept Laser after a bid for its compatriot, SLM Solutions Group, failed. Siemens, meanwhile, bought an stake 85% stake in Materials Solutions, one of the world leaders in additive manufacturing processing and production, announced plans to collaborate with HP on 3D printing, partnered with laser system manufacturer Trumpf to help industrialise laser metal fusion technology and make the additive manufacturing of metal parts an integral part of production processes and opened its first workshop for 3D printing in the Swedish city of Finspång.
Siemens’ experience illustrates how additive manufacturing could transform the way we make things. Siemens says the technology is a “game-changer,” with benefits including a 30% cut in greenhouse gas emissions, a 63% reduction in resource use and a shrinking of the time it takes to bring products to market by 75%. Thanks to improved design flexibility, components that could take two years to progress from drawing board to factory can now be designed, tested, refined and perfected within weeks instead – and they are of higher quality than those they replace.
Previously, one of the main constraints on designing new products was the limitations of the manufacturing process, says Dr Vladimir Navrotsky, chief technology officer for Siemens’ Distributed Generation Service at Finspång. “At least 30% of the design of many components is determined by the restrictions of the manufacturing process. AM opens up new design possibilities. Simply because we are designing specifically for Additive Manufacturing, it automatically creates more innovation.”
Indeed, one of the main factors currently holding back greater progress with 3D printing is the risk-averse mindset of designers, he says. “Previously, the cost and time to bring a component to production led to an innate conservatism among designers,” he points out. “It used to take a year to develop a gas turbine blade, and if it was not right, it would take another year to correct. Now, designers have the freedom to try something, fail and have another go without costing the company any more money.”
This is leading to a surge in innovation in the company. “If you can dream it, you can print it,” says Thorbjoern Fors, CEO of Siemens’ Distributed Generation Service.
One example of this is a change to the way the company makes the blades for its gas turbines. Previously, they were made of one solid piece of metal – now they have a lattice structure that was just not feasible using existing production techniques but presents no problems to a 3D printer. The lattice structure provides strength but uses far less material than before (which also reduces printing time). This means that each blade is lighter, so it takes less energy to turn the blades and at the same time it helps to keep the blade cooler. If you can cut the temperature of the blade by 10°C, you can increase the product’s life expectancy by 50%, Navrotsky says.
Siemens is also 3D printing the burners for its turbines, creating one component where before there were 13 different parts that had to be welded together, which took time, energy and resources that are now no longer needed.
And the technology is set to revolutionize maintenance and repair operations, too. Currently, when a blade wears out, the whole thing must be taken out and replaced. But it is the tips of the blades that deteriorate most quickly because they are subject to the biggest forces – the rest of the blade remains fit for use. Now Siemens can cut off the worn-out tip of the blade and print a replacement directly on to the rest of the component, saving materials, inventory and logistics costs as well as allowing for bespoke repairs precisely suited to the part in question.
3D printing is not the answer to all manufacturing issues – it remains feasible mainly for high-value, complex, limited edition products and components, particularly where it is important to reduce weight. That’s why it is being adopted in healthcare and by the automotive, aviation and energy sectors. But over time, as costs fall and manufacturers – and consumers – harness the technology’s capabilities, it will transform the way we make everything from clothes to ancient monuments destroyed in conflicts, reducing waste, energy and water use along the way.
“Over the next five years, I believe this technology will allow us to cut costs by 50%. Designing for Additive Manufacturing automatically creates more innovation,” says Navrotsky. “We are not working with AM because it is sexy but because it is an extra tool to multiply the knowledge we have in component design.”