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.
Norway-based additive manufacturing company Norsk Titanium is building what it says is the first industrial-scale 3D printing plant in the world for making aerospace-grade metal components. The New York state plant will produce 400 metric tons each year of aerospace-grade, structural titanium parts.
Siemens and Fraunhofer Institute for Laser Technology have achieved a faster production process based on selective laser melting for speeding up the prototyping of big, complex metal parts in gas turbine engines.
BMW has already incorporated more than 10,000 3D-printed parts in the Rolls-Royce Phantom and intends to expand the use of 3D printing in its cars even more in the future. Meanwhile, Daimler has started using additive manufacturing for producing spare parts in Mercedes-Benz Trucks.
SABIC's lightweighting polycarbonate glazing materials have appeared for the first time in a production car: the rear quarter window of Toyota's special edition 86 GRMN sports car, where they're saving 50% of its weight compared to conventional glass.
Design engineers play a big role in selecting both suppliers and materials for their designs. Our most recent Design News Materials Survey says they continue to be highly involved, in some ways even more than the last time we asked to peek inside their cubicles.
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