The first day of the new year is always a good time to be forward-looking and one technology that seems to be finally coming into its own after a decade or more of hype is 3D, or additive, printing.
First developed in the 1980s, 3D printing has held huge potential in the eyes of its supporters, but the slow speed, high cost of machines and much higher cost of materials – in some cases up to 100 times the cost of conventional raw materials – has made additive printing of parts prohibitive for mass production.
Where it has shone is in prototyping and small production runs of high-value products. Therefore, not surprisingly, the medical implant industry, aerospace and (at least for prototyping) automotive have been embracing the technology with increasing enthusiasm. According to an FT article, with traditional methods, a Ford engineer would create a computer model of an intake manifold engine part and wait about four months for a prototype at a cost of $500,000. With 3D printing, the car manufacturer can print the same part in four days at a cost of $3,000.
How Does 3D Printing Work?
Briefly, 3D or additive printing builds up layers of material, particle by particle, using finely sintered raw material (originally plastics, but increasingly metals and ceramics) and lasers. As a result, any unused material is left as fine particles available for re-use without further processing, so wastage is minimal. That’s important for industries using high-cost materials such as titanium.
In the aerospace industry they have a phrase: “buy-to-fly ratio,” meaning the ratio of raw material cost to finished material cost. Another article quotes GKN Aerospace technical director Rich Oldfield: “For some of our components you can throw away 90% of the material that you buy. If you look at the bill of material on an aircraft, anything that has got a buy-to-fly ratio in that 70 to 90% space is a candidate (for additive printing).”
But that’s not the only advantage to 3D printing, according to Greg Morris of GE Aviation’s additive development center. A fuel nozzle currently consists of 20 different components that have to be machined, cast and welded. With 3D printing, it can be made in one metal piece, have five times the lifespan and weigh about 75% less. From 2016, GE Aviation will start mass printing fuel nozzles for the new Leap engine for the Boeing 747 Max and Airbus A320neo aircraft. By 2020, it expects to have made 100,000 3D-printed fuel nozzles.
Anywhere that time is money also presents an opportunity – in certain cases, Siemens is noted as saying, the time taken to repair damage in turbine burners can be cut from 44 weeks to just four.
Like all new technologies, uptake is largely driven by cost and cost will only come down with the speed of the additive process, so technology needs to progress to the point where more mainstream production processes can make use of the technology before it has a disruptive effect on conventional production routes.
That is years away, according to Wohlers Associates, the industry consultancy.
The market for 3D printers and services was worth $2.2bn in 2012, of which just 28.3% was used in the production of parts for final products, according to Wohlers. It expects the industry to grow to $6bn by 2017 and $10.8bn by 2021.
What This Means for Metal Buyers
There is no doubt some of our readers out there are in industries already considering – and maybe already adopting – additive printing. For those that haven’t, maybe 2014 is the time to get better acquainted with the current technology and re-appraise how close their operation is to making use of what could become a major disrupter in time.