Very thorough overview that sets the stage for how additive technologies are being used across industries. Question or perhaps clarification: It appears the big difference between these technologies outlined in your piece, Ann, and the blaze of low-cost 3D printers we've been writing about lately really boils down to a matter of materials. So if you're trying to produce something in low-volume that is the actual end product, addivitive techniques and these new materials are your go-to technology vs. many of the 3D printers which still use the powder-based materials that are really not functional, just well suited for prototyping purposes. Is that a fair assumption?
This technique when used for medical and dental prosthetics and implants will definitely create better products hitherto not plausible. With the new generation intelligent implants we can really hope for products that will enhance quality of life.
Great point about how this is filling a much-needed market niche. 3D printing and prototyping, as important as it is, is essentially a low volume technology for low-stress parts. When you see an auto engine in the context of additive manufacturing, you know that the rubber is hitting the road, to use a cliche.
Beth, I think materials are one of two major differences. The second is the process. The processes of all these higher-end low-volume parts and castings are different types of laser sintering or fused deposition modeling (FDM).
I definately agree with your last paragraph that extolls the huge potential of this technology for one-off custom medical devices. Customizing implants to the patients anatomy vs. adapting standard devices to the patient could be really a step forward. Also there is the reality that high-end medical products seem to be relatively free from cost restraint considerations for the time being.
Alex, the car engine parts made with AM surprised me, too. This is an indication of the sea-change that seems to be hitting AM. And I think custom medical devices, as RNDDUDE's commented, are also going to be a big deal. In fact, in terms of total volumes of products/parts made, I suspect these could exceed the automotive and aerospace objects per year, at least in the near term.
Ann, yes medical has some real potential. Because now one can get very accurate patient topographical data via MRI/cat scan, and have that translated into 3D solid format, customized implants can then be exactly tailored to the patient before and surgery takes place. The result would be perfect fit, faster surgeries, less complications, faster recoveries.
The automotive parts (exemplified by the Honda racing engine's exhaust manifolds) are not really additive manufactoring. They are metal CASTINGS made in MOLDS based on a WAX MODEL that was sculted by a 3-D printer. This is still cheaper than a mold created from a steel block sculpted by a CMC milling machine. The trade off may be that a steel mold costs $50,000 and takes 3 weeks but is good for 1000 castings, whereas the wax / sand casting is done in a day but has to be repeated with a fresh wax model for each cast.
(I don't really know much about metal manufacturing, but I think the above captures the gross outline of the technology.)
@RadioGuy: Your details are a little bit off -- $50,000 is maybe a reasonable price for die casting tooling (depending on the size and complexity of the part), but a typical tooling lead time would be more like six to eight weeks, and a typical tooling life would be several hundred thousand shots -- but your comments capture the spirit of the technology very well.
Basically, if you don't have time and/or money to spend on tooling, and if you only need a small number of parts, then it makes sense to use rapid patterns.
One consideration which isn't mentioned in the article is that casting in a plaster mold is very different from casting in a steel mold. Plaster is a thermally insulating material, while steel is a thermally conductive material. This means that the heat transfer at the metal-mold interface is completely different. A casting will solidify at a much faster rate in a metal mold than in a plaster mold. The solidification rate determines many of the mechanical properties of the casting. So I'm not sure that this is a "realistic substitute" for die casting, at least as far as mechanical properties are concerned.
I'd like to know more about the plaster mold process mentioned in this article. Are the plaster molds thick, or are they shells? If they are shells, do they stand alone, or do they go into a sand flask? Are the molds single-use (which would make this a form of investment casting), or can they be used multiple times?
As RadioGuy points out, in many of these technologies, additive manufacturing techniques are not used to make the final product, but to make a pattern for a casting. As a metallurgist, I would like to see much more emphasis on the metalcasting aspects.
The fact that metalcasting has been around for thousands of years does not make it is old and boring. Advances are constantly being made in foundry technology. The interface between additive manufacturing and metalcasting is just one example.
The human body can be a pretty harsh and corrosive place for parts, but it pales by comparison to an engine's exhaust manifold. I'm very surprised to see this technology being applied to such stressful environments.
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