The expanding 3D printing (3DP) and overall additive manufacturing (AM) ecosystem, formed of multiple players beyond the traditional machine-and-materials suppliers, will continue to grow and broaden in 2015. As a reflection of this democratization process, the number of standards and guidelines coming from standards bodies and government organizations are increasing. Another reflection of multiple players with multiple needs is the role of 3DP and overall additive manufacturing (AM) as enabling technologies that will help make possible distributed manufacturing, which will also expand this year.
Enabling technology for distributed manufacturing
3D printing is enabling distributed manufacturing, which is localized rapid-turnaround design and production of products in smaller quantities than the Henry Ford-style centralized, high-volume processes typical of traditional industrial manufacturing. A new study from Lux Research says distributed manufacturing is combining the DIY approach and microfactories to produce major shifts in some industries. These include makers of cars, furniture, houses, and various consumer goods, and will expand to include aviation and electronics.
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Local Motors made history by 3D printing an entire Strati EV on the show floor at Chicago's 2014 IMTS, assembling it, and driving it away in two days. The company is dedicated to distributed manufacturing, aided by crowdsourcing and a network of microfactories.
(Source: Local Motors)
Local Motors, which made history with Cincinnati Inc. by 3D printing an entire Strati EV on the show floor at Chicago's IMTS, assembling it, and driving it away in two days, is dedicated to distributed manufacturing, aided by crowdsourcing and microfactories. But 3DP also enables other types of distributed manufacturing, if we expand the concept a bit.
For example, Within Technologies' secure online service lets engineers and orthopedic surgeons design and 3D print highly accurate, patient-specific, orthopedic medical implants made of meta l-- without owning an expensive high-end 3D printer. Instead, Within's contract manufacturer partner C&A Tool prints out the implants and also provides tooling and engineering services.
Organized somewhat differently is 3D Systems' cloud-based, secure Bespoke Modeling service for 3D printing sophisticated, full-color, 3D anatomical models. Traditional modeling software is very expensive, and model sets can be several hundred megabytes in size and difficult to work with on a PC. So this service processes data on 3D Systems' huge cloud-based servers, which makes more sense for surgeons and dentists. Instead of weeks, it takes a few minutes to upload CT scan files, have the software make a model, and get a price quote for having the service print it.
Although we don't usually think of them this way, as end-production process technologies and materials have improved some 3DP service bureaus are becoming focuses of distributed manufacturing, like microfactories. Some service bureaus that use other kinds of rapid prototyping and quick-turn manufacturing technologies like CNC milling and injection molding are getting into the business of small-batch end-production manufacturing using 3DP. Others that already focus on 3DP are expanding their manufacturing capabilities.
For example, Stratasys bought two specialized 3DP service bureaus to expand its end-production and combined them with its existing service bureau, RedEye. One, Solid Concepts, was the largest dedicated AM and rapid prototyping provider in North America, targeting manufacturing of medical devices and equipment, aerospace parts, and UAV components. The other, Harvest Technologies, focused on end-use manufacturing and prototyping for several industries, including high-quality, low- to medium-volume production end parts for aerospace. Along with RedEye, all three house most available AM technologies and materials, and have expertise and capacity in several non-AM technologies, such as CNC machining, injection molding and tooling, investment casting, and cast urethanes. Service bureaus like this, in facilities around the world, will be more common in the future, enabling distributed manufacturing on a very large scale.
Standards and guidelines for AM materials, processes and parts
Making high-quality production parts with additive manufacturing (AM) and 3D printing methods, which many think is coming soon in at least certain industries, will require some carefully defined standards and guidelines for machines and processes, materials, and printed parts. This is especially true for high-quality metal parts. The standards bodies are not standing still on this: they've already released a few and are working on others. Interestingly, many of these are aimed at both suppliers and OEMs.
For example, WK46188, a new ASTM International working standard describes how powder bed fusion machines and processes can be operated, plus what production control methods need to be used, to meet the rigid quality standards of industries like aerospace and medical. The standard aims at developing the critical parameters needed to transform processes that were originally developed for making prototypes, into processes that can make the type of safety-critical components needed for patient-specific medical implants and flight-worthy aircraft parts. Its main targets are Tier 1 and 2 suppliers setting up facilities for producing parts using powder bed fusion, and OEM engineers that are creating guidelines for their own internal standards.
Another ASTM working standard, WK40419, aims at developing a test method that describes "a benchmarking test piece along with quantitative and qualitative measurements to be taken on the benchmarking test piece to assess the performance of additive manufacturing (AM) systems." Also in development is WK43112, "Guide for Evaluating Mechanical Properties of Materials Made Via Additive Manufacturing Processes." The ASTM has already released F3049, "Guide for Characterizing Properties of Metal Powders Used for Additive Manufacturing Processes," aimed at both users and makers of AM metal powders for high-performance applications like automotive, aerospace, and medical, and F3001, "Specification for Additive Manufacturing Titanium-6 Aluminum-4 Vanadium ELI (Extra Low Interstitial) with Powder Bed Fusion."
Standards bodies aren't the only ones working in this direction: so are manufacturers, many via their own internal guidelines, and others via collaboration in manufacturing institutes such as America Makes, the former National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute. The ASTM is also working directly with America Makes, which is now participating in the ASTM standards process for AM. America Makes has funded several projects for developing guidelines and knowledgebases for AM and 3D printing processes and equipment, including qualification and certification, as we've told you. Many of these projects concern metal processes and aerospace applications. Optomec, for example, is involved in several America Makes projects. One of these focuses on developing knowledgebases of deposition parameters for Ti-6Al-4V and IN718 (Inconel) using the company's LENS metal 3D printing process. Optomec's partners in this project are GE Aviation and Lockheed Martin.
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Ann R. Thryft is senior technical editor, materials & assembly, for Design News. She's been writing about manufacturing- and electronics-related technologies for 25 years, covering manufacturing materials & processes, alternative energy, machine vision, and all kinds of communications.