Additive manufacturing is all set to take center stage as manufacturers unfold its potential to revolutionize the production process. However, certain challenges remain to be addressed before its widespread adoption.
Companies today are increasingly resorting to Additive Manufacturing (AM) or 3D Printing due to a number of reasons that include cost saving, product customization, shorter time-to-market, unique designs and small series production. The break-even point where AM becomes more cost-effective versus conventional manufacturing could range from 50 to 5000 parts, depending on factors such as industry, application and material. The long-tail requirements of a diverse marketplace ranging from medical devices and manufacturing tools to special purpose machines and spare parts can more effectively be addressed via AM.
AM’s role in achieving business goals
The Gartner’s Hype Cycle, which is revised every year, is an excellent broad indicator of maturity and adoption of technologies and applications and how they are potentially relevant to solving real business problems and exploiting new opportunities. Figure 1 shows how AM technology and applications will evolve over time, thus managing its deployment within the context of business specific goals.
According to a Roland Berger study, as of 2014, the metal AM market was still less than one percent of the machine tool market and is expected to grow anywhere between 2x to 7x by 2020, largely driven by a rapid growth in the adoption of 3D printing in the manufacturing sector. And with increased competition (leading to innovation), expiry of key patents (such as EBM technology), investment by big players (General Electric, HP, etc.), and the adoption of the technology for serial manufacturing of end-use parts (Siemens, Airbus, GE, etc.), the metal market is expected to grow exponentially in the next three to five years.
Different technologies may be used based on material, end application, part specification, function and volume, cost and availability of other alternatives. Key drivers for AM adoption could be based on:
Huge potential of AM in various sectors
As long as the applications are carefully selected so that the added value is derived from the process, the potential for AM in the manufacturing industry is huge. Several sectors such as aerospace, automotive, medical devices, dental, footwear, electronics, consumer goods, jewelry, farm and construction equipment, tire, industrial components, and tool & die have been successfully using AM although the applications are largely limited to prototyping. Some sectors like hearing aid devices have successfully transitioned to using AM for mass production, or rather mass customization needs. The chart in Figure 2 (based on a survey by the global consulting firm Ernst & Young (EY)) shows current applications and future potential of AM in the industry.
As with any emerging technology, there are challenges towards a wider adoption of AM in the manufacturing industry. The top ones are:
However, through continuous innovations in machines (multi-laser, automation, and integration concepts), materials (multi-material, amorphous metals, third party suppliers), software (simulation, automation, process monitoring and control), post-processing (micro-machining, CT) and services (high-end repair, mobile), vendors are helping to alleviate these challenges. All this will lead to reduction in AM part cost and significant growth in the AM market. Post-processing is a major cost driver in metal AM wherein the post-processing effort alone could be just a fraction of the AM process and material costs or in some cases, several times the AM cost. It’s highly part, application and material dependent. It’s important to consider this during the business case justification in metal AM. However, this could also be avoided by optimizing the design for AM.
AM future is serial manufacturing
Nowadays, AM is widely used for prototyping of metal and plastic parts and the technology can be considered fairly mature for such use-cases. However, the future of AM lies with Direct Manufacturing. For maximum impact, AM must be used in serial production of end-use functional products. But certification of the AM process is not easy and there are few qualified international standards available. This makes it challenging to set up an AM process matching mass manufacturing requirements. Accor-
ding to a survey by EY, 38 percent of companies by 2021 expect to use AM for the production of end-use parts, with Germany being the most conservative while China and South Korea being the most optimistic in such applications. The chart in Figure 3 compares the adoption of AM for prototyping vs. serial production type applications.
Core functions to be benefited by AM
Another survey by EY, covering more than 900 companies across 12 countries (both mature and emerging markets) in nine industries, showed the core functions/departments expected to be benefited by AM in the next five years (see chart in Figure 4).
Among all functions, the R&D and Engineering departments led the way in driving the adoption of AM within their respective organizations, followed by the Production department and the rest.
Companies that have adopted AM can be classified based on their maturity level in doing so (see chart in Figure 5a):
Level 1 – very little experience or awareness
Level 2 – department level experimenting with no central structured approach
Level 3 – clear direction and integration of AM into operations at department level
Level 4 – strategic and centralized adoption of
AM with C-level sponsorship
Level 4 companies differ from others by having a central team involved in AM with sponsorship directly coming in from the top management and recognition of AM as central to corporate strategy (see chart in Figure 5b).
In summary, the benefits of AM are:
Lower costs: Cheaper or zero tooling, lesser transportation, lower warehousing, less working capital;
Better/unique design: Free complexity, added features such as cooling channels, porous structures, lattices, conductivity, etc., light-weighing, less assembly by integrated design;
Customization: Ergonomics, organic designs, body contours, (external/internal), unique pro-duct interfaces, aesthetics;
Sustainability: Less waste, light weight, less fuel consumption, efficient supply chain, lower handling/transportation costs, life cycle analysis;
New business models: Shorter time-to-market, small series, supply chain disruption (on demand, on location), services, co-creation and co-engineering.
And the above benefits are already being realized to varying degrees by manufacturing industries in applications such as spare parts, structural components, design and styling, production tools, jigs, fixtures and assembly aids, tool repair, part consolidation, high performance parts, scale/concept models, one-off or small series end-use components, moulds, casting master patterns, production line applications such as grippers, nozzles and brackets and many more.
According to a survey by EY, 38 percent of companies by 2021 expect to use AM for the production of end-use parts.
The mindset to adopt AM and application specific know-how is key and can only be achieved via the right partners and with the right investments.
Regional Account Manager
(India, South Asia)