Everywhere I explored at Rapid 2009, it was apparent there is a battle under way in materials technology in the fast-emerging rapid manufacturing industry. Some suppliers have “real” materials. Others are stiff and tough. Some are clear. Design engineers can be excused if they can’t keep it straight. You virtually need to keep a daily scorecard. And no matter what you pick, you are probably making some type of tradeoff. There may be some sacrifice in surface finish or accuracy in a laser sintering process. But you get real world metals and plastics that are actually used in functional applications. The range of materials’ qualities you can get with stereolithography systems is impressive. They are increasingly stiff and tough, and will be getting better in terms of thermal properties. Both systems offer the opportunity to create intricate internal shapes, though. And that’s something that’s expensive and difficult to achieve in the injection molding process.
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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