Additive Manufacturing, Ready for Prime Time


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There has been a groundswell of interest in 2011 about the field of additive manufacturing (AM), which may be of relevance to your business.

If we look back 2 years or so, there were few mentions of additive manufacturing in the digital world or in the mainstream media. Now, blogs abound with discussions of AM, and articles have appeared in “The Economist,” “The Wall Street Journal” and more. Why am I qualified to speak with you about this subject?

I am David Burns, the president of ExOne, which has developed an approach to additive manufacturing that is focused on industrial customers and industrial applications.

You could argue that I am biased in my views of the future of additive manufacturing. However, I worked for 27 years (including the title of CEO) for a traditional machine tool and tooling company. The combination of these two career experiences has given me an interesting perspective on why additive manufacturing is important.

Additive manufacturing includes the processes whereby material is added, layer by layer, to create objects. The creation of each unique layer is based upon data that flows from a “sliced” digital model of the part to be produced. The binding of material, inter-layer and intra-layer, may be accomplished by heat, chemicals or other processes, but the notion of layered build of objects is common across additive manufacturing.

If manufacturing parts in an industrial environment is part of your life, then it would be wise to anticipate that additive manufacturing will be part of your future.

In the early days of AM, the layered processes were fairly slow, and there were a limited set of materials that might be used. At the outset, it was therefore labeled “Rapid Prototyping.”

Through the diligent work of a variety of companies and research institutions, the speed, the available material set, the dimensional characteristics and the application areas have improved exponentially over the last few years. The same basic process that can be used to make relatively expensive “fit and form” prototypes a few years ago is now being used to make complex parts for industrial applications every day, and progress continues to be made in this field.

The advances in additive manufacturing dispel many preconceived notions that have been accepted as gospel in the world of manufactured products. Here are four key reasons why manufacturers should follow these developments:

Unconstrained Design: In almost all manufacturing environments, product designs are dictated by the constraints in the ability to manufacture parts.  Product features are compromised. Multiple parts are used when a single part would suffice. Ask yourself the question, “What would be possible if there were no manufacturing constraints, in terms of product design? AM affords us the ability to answer that question.

Complexity vs. Simplicity: In traditional manufacturing environments, we have been trained to understand that complexity always costs more than simplicity. In AM, that paradigm is simply not true. The cost of complexity is virtually the same as the cost of simplicity. Think of the power of that statement alone.

Speed: AM processes require no tooling and have a digital foundation. There are virtually no delays in moving from a robust digital design to the manufacturing process. There is direct, uninterrupted progression from concept to part.

Customization: Customization is a subtle variant on the theme of complexity. AM makes mass customization possible. There is little effort and negligible cost to alter each and every part to fit a custom profile.

The tools of optimization and lean manufacturing have been with us for many years. Immense progress has been made in the elimination of waste and non-value added activities in many of our factories. There is a critical point to be made here: In the end, there is a limit to the amount of improvement that can be achieved using subtractive processes.

The logical conclusion to the optimization journey in manufacturing would be to make exactly what you need, exactly when you need it, exactly where you need it, eliminating non-value added steps between conceptualization and creation.

Additive manufacturing approaches afford exactly this opportunity for true optimization. There are advances being made every day in this field. If you have not begun to study the possibilities, now is the time. It is likely that your competition is doing exactly that.