Additive Manufacturing (AM) also known as 3D printing has been receiving a lot of attention lately from the industry, media, government agencies and other organizations. The market has been growing steadily (Ref. Wohlers Report 2017) for AM machine suppliers and producers of parts, patterns and tooling. The amount of functional parts that go into final products being produced by AM has more than doubled in the last 4-5 years. Users of AM already consider it, to be creating a competitive advantage. Majority of the AM activities are in automotive, aerospace, industrial and business machines, consumer goods and medical and dental sectors. Prototype and proof of concept creation are still the major applications. Production parts, education, marketing and demo samples, art and hobby come next. FDM, SLA, and SLS for plastics are the most widely used technologies. Plastics constitute more than 80 percent of 3D printed parts. However, AM for metals using powder bed fusion (PBF) technologies such as Direct Metal, Laser Sintering (DMLS) and Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) are the fastest growing segment.
"Software, the major enabler for innovation in the AM machines"
Metal AM based on PBF seems to have great potential to produce high value components for airplanes, automobiles, machine tools, and medical implants. Without the constraints of the conventional manufacturing processes such as closing and opening of dies and molds for stamping and casting, AM may provide unprecedented opportunities for innovation and consolidation of parts while reducing weight and improving product performance. Shown below (Courtesy APWorks) is the world’s first 3D printed prototype for Light Rider, an electric motorcycle capable of going up to 80 kilometers per hour with a total weight of just 35 kg. Topology optimization which starts with a package space and operational loads was used to design the 3D printed frame weighing just 6 kg. Another example of the design and manufacturing freedom offered by AM is shown (Courtesy Altair) for a robotic manipulator where the weight was reduced by 30 percent without compromising stiffness by applying topology optimization to the parts shown in yellow.
Complex shapes such as bionic structures, honeycombs, lattices and internal channels, difficult to manufacture with conventional processes are ideal candidates for AM.