The Phenomenon of Additive Manufacturing: Is 3D Printing Too Good to Be True? – Part Two

(Read Part One here.)

Before we left off with some pretty heavy questions in Part One, we mentioned that additive manufacturing — aka 3D printing — seems to be more widely used in Europe than in the US. If there was one American with his finger on the pulse of metal printing more than anyone else, that just might be Greg Morris, the head of Morris Technologies in Cincinnati.

“Other tooling applications for DMLS (Direct Metal Laster Sintering) might include hardened steel tools and prototype die cast tooling, which has been generally ignored in North America, Morris told Medical Design in 2008. “Demand, however, has us focusing on building smaller, highly complex parts from stainless and cobalt chromium alloys. They are by far the most widely requested due to their exceptional mechanical properties.

Morris uses more machines by 3D printer-maker EOS than anyone on the continent. However, his quote speaks to exactly the niche that these systems are beginning to fill and so far, for the most part, that niche is small and specialized.

There are several issues that DMLS technology raises for the current manufacturing landscape worldwide. One of the Economist articles we mentioned in the last post pointed out that “in a world where economies of scale do not matter anymore, mass-manufacturing identical items may not be necessary or appropriate, especially as 3D printing allows for a great deal of customisation. Is it really true that economies of scale are unnecessary? Perhaps if we’re speaking merely about the consumer-driven sector, but what about steelmaking, for example? Economies of scale are still very important for metals producers and suppliers. Yes, these 3D printers may take down fixed costs considerably in many cases, but what about profits? Customization is great for the consumer, but may create more headaches for producers down the road.

Yes, it’s true that the reason we call it “additive manufacturing is because it’s the opposite of “subtractive manufacturing, i.e. the traditional method of cutting down and reforming metals to mold, cast and stamp products. The positive aspects of the technology are the implications for material waste reduction. (Less gross metal to buy reduces costs, sure, but also helps increase the “usable amount of each billet; alternatively, demand for metal powders and their producers goes up.)

Overall, the reduction of costs associated with retooling is also pretty important for manufacturers, now and in the future. Consolidation of parts is also a big deal, something that affects many aspects of manufacturers’ considerations. Printers able to take complex parts’ designs and turn them into 3D reality could considerably “simplify your BOM and drive down costs, says Ronald L. Hollis, CEO of Quickparts, quoted in a well-reported Design News article.

Some challenging issues, at least as far as metal sintering is concerned, remain. One used to be the freedom of choice in terms of materials lineup. Morris decried the lack of choice back in 2008, saying, “There are hundreds if not thousands of alloys for casting and machining. DMLS currently has four. Not anymore, as we reported in Part One of this series; EOS has added five more alloy powders although Arcam still only has four. Another issue is a persistent lack of design data, or at least a standardization of data development across manufacturers using printed parts: “Large OEMs with stringent manufacturing requirements have worked to develop their own property data, the article continues. “Boeing has likewise conducted extensive mechanical testing to support its work with direct digital manufacturing, according to Brian Hastings, a materials and process engineer responsible for the aerospace company’s SLS machines.

Even though parts as large as entire airplane wings are now being “printed, poor repeatability for the manufacturing process is still an issue, since the industry has such statistically “rigorous process control, quality assurance and testing capabilities.

So should metals buyers focus only on sourcing powders instead of coil, sheet and wire? Should steelmakers do away with their factories and invest solely in EOS or Arcam printers? Probably not. Buildings, bridges and ships still have to be made, and printers alone simply won’t cut it. “I can’t imagine doing what we’re doing without a real machine shop behind us, Morris has said.

But there is room to start filling those ever-growing niches as technology advances. As Dr. Hod Lipson, director of the Computational Synthesis Laboratory at Cornell, said to the BBC: “If I have to guess, I’d say that in 20 years this technology will be mainstream, absolutely.

–Taras Berezowsky

MetalMiner and its sister site, Spend Matters, along with Nucor, will host a live simulcast, International Trade Breaking Point on March 1, 2011. If your company sources products from overseas, you will not want to miss this half-day event:

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