Progressing Towards Production Applications
and How we “Think” About It
The disruptive nature of 3D printing and additive manufacturing (AM) has been illustrated time and time again throughout the history of this technology sector for a host of prototyping and tooling applications. In recent years AM has started to disrupt the way many companies are thinking about production too as the processes themselves and the ecosystem around them continues to mature and evolve. It’s a natural progression, that seems all the more natural with hindsight, and today the “talk” about AM for production applications is getting louder and more widespread. Just from my own anecdotal experiences, conversations about “production” have increased dramatically in frequency during the course of this year.
However, here’s a thing that I’ve noticed, particularly since returning from Formnext this year and as the result of conversations since: it is all too easy to talk — or think — about “additive manufacturing” as a singular solution to some generic production requirements. Reality is often very different necessitating a unique set of requirements from one application to another, and sometimes AM fits — as a solution or, more often, as part of the solution.
Producing end use products or components for them is invariably a multi-process undertaking, it is extremely rare that one single process fulfils any OEMs or Tier 1/2/3’s production requirements, whichever industry sector they are operating in. This is a fact that struck home forcibly during a recent interview with Martin Forth, CEO of Raplas. In particular, it was Martin’s reference to “the narrow view that most people in the AM industry have [about production],” that really challenged my own views here and made me think, and think some more.
There is also the issue of materials, specifically the metal versus plastics theme. In the context of AM and production there is a widespread implication that metals are for production and plastics are for prototyping and/or playing. I may have mentioned this once or twice before, but this is a misnomer. There are maybe a handful of stand-out examples where AM with metal has been directly implemented for serial production applications (as opposed to one-offs or very low volumes, which are more common). However, production applications with plastics at higher volumes are more prolific yet less “sexy” and therefore often under-rated.
And then there are those production applications where AM is a part of the solution. This is potentially where AM can make the greatest and most widespread impact, I suspect. A pertinent example of this is illustrated in a case study from M Di Vito, a UK company that has evolved from a traditional foundry operation into an innovative service provider that combines AM with its conventional expertise and experience. M Di Vito recently highlighted a fundamental production application of AM, in the production of complex sand cores, to create final cast parts with features that would not have been possible otherwise. Moreover, the economics and the shorter lead times will support full production of critical components for a marine outboard engine in significant volumes.
It has come as a timely reminder that the continued evolution and expansion of the additive manufacturing (AM) world demands consideration — and re-consideration — of the real-world application(s) of this broad technology base and the importance of always keeping an open mind.