Direct digital manufacturing is making fast strides for low-volume applications requiring complex detail, but some significant issues remain. Design engineers require process verification, particularly for high-end parts. For example, the widespread adaption of closed-loop process controls about a dozen years ago provided verification that required process parameters in the injection molding process were being maintained. Direct digital manufacturing systems were originally developed by companies in the rapid prototyping business, where such requirements were not necessary. Parts were simply required for form and fit, and not so much for functional testing. There is often considerable process variation in the new additive fabrication systems being developed for manufacturing directly from digital files. Improvements will come, however, and the new systems are certainly worth a look in several situations, particularly those where there are constant design change orders.
As the 3D printing and overall additive manufacturing ecosystem grows, standards and guidelines from standards bodies and government organizations are increasing. Multiple players with multiple needs are also driving the role of 3DP and AM as enabling technologies for distributed manufacturing.
A growing though not-so-obvious role for 3D printing, 4D printing, and overall additive manufacturing is their use in fabricating new materials and enabling new or improved manufacturing and assembly processes. Individual engineers, OEMs, university labs, and others are reinventing the technology to suit their own needs.
For vehicles to meet the 2025 Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards, three things must happen: customers must look beyond the data sheet and engage materials supplier earlier, and new integrated multi-materials are needed to make step-change improvements.
3D printing, 4D printing, and various types of additive manufacturing (AM) will get even bigger in 2015. We're not talking about consumer use, which gets most of the attention, but processes and technologies that will affect how design engineers design products and how manufacturing engineers make them. For now, the biggest industries are still aerospace and medical, while automotive and architecture continue to grow.
More and more -- that's what we'll see from plastics and composites in 2015, more types of plastics and more ways they can be used. Two of the fastest-growing uses will be automotive parts, plus medical implants and devices. New types of plastics will include biodegradable materials, plastics that can be easily recycled, and some that do both.
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