At present, the maximum focus of the technology world is placed on artificial intelligence, machine learning, big data and their impact on the way we use products and how machines operate. At the same time, 3D printing or additive manufacturing (AM) are progressing just as rapidly, although with somewhat less hype, which is going to have at least as big an effect on how we make things as AI et al. The products are created through the process by putting in layers of material, commonly ground metal or plastic, to a template, lasering that material into place and repeating the process to build the required product that can be anything from replacement hips to jet engine parts.
Initially, a lot of focus was on the consumer side; however, two latest stories demonstrate the 3D printing’s scope in industry. 3D- printed graphene, which is the one-molecule-thick wonder material; to make a material that they say is “lighter than air” but 10 times as strong as steel, has been made by the researchers at MIT, as per the reports of Computerworld. This material possibly will assist to lightweight products like aircraft, cars and filtration devices if it can be scaled up, thereby saving large amounts of fuel, costs and carbon emissions.
On the other hand, a Dubai-based start-up known as ‘Cazza’ claims that it has the ability of 3D-printing 200m² of concrete a day by means of a 3D-printing crane named the ‘Minitank’, CNN reported. The company states that it can create structures more than 50% faster as compared to traditional methods by automating the process.
There is a huge possibility for the technology to transform the way industry operates. Industrial giants such as GE and Siemens have already put additive manufacturing to good use, even though several applications are not so attention-grabbing.
Germany’s Concept Laser has been purchased by GE after a bid for its compatriot, SLM Solutions Group, failed. In the meantime, an 85% stake in one of the world leaders in additive manufacturing processing and production ‘Materials Solutions’ has been bought by Siemens in addition to not only declaring the plans to join forces with HP on 3D printing, but also collaborated with laser system manufacturer Trumpf to help industrialize laser metal fusion technology and make the additive manufacturing of metal parts an integral part of production processes. In addition to all this, Siemens also opened its first workshop for 3D printing in the Swedish city of Finspång.
The potential of additive manufacturing to change the way we make things is being shown by Siemens’ experience. According to Siemens, this technology is a “game-changer,” with benefits including a 30% cut in greenhouse gas emissions, a 63% reduction in resource use and a shrinking of the time it takes to bring products to market by 75%. The components that could take two years to proceed from drawing board to factory can now be designed, tested, refined and perfected within weeks as a result of upgraded design flexibility. Besides, these components are of higher quality when compared with those they substitute.
Dr Vladimir Navrotsky, chief technology officer for Siemens’ Distributed Generation Service at Finspång, told that the limitations of the manufacturing process were one of the leading constraints on designing new products.
“At least 30% of the design of many components is determined by the restrictions of the manufacturing process. AM opens up new design possibilities. Simply because we are designing specifically for Additive Manufacturing, it automatically creates more innovation.”
While explaining that one of the major factors that is inhibiting huge advancement with 3D printing is the risk-averse mindset of designers, he said:
“Previously, the cost and time to bring a component to production led to an innate conservatism among designers. It used to take a year to develop a gas turbine blade, and if it was not right, it would take another year to correct. Now, designers have the freedom to try something, fail and have another go without costing the company any more money.”
This is the reason for the flood in innovation in the company. As CEO of Siemens’ Distributed Generation Service, Thorbjoern Fors says, “If you can dream it, you can print it.”
The change in the method the company uses to create the blades for its gas turbines is an example of this. They were made of one solid piece of metal in the past, however, they have a lattice structure now that was just not feasible using existing production techniques but presents no problems to a 3D printer. This lattice structure not only provides strength, but also utilizes significantly less material as compared to before, thereby decreasing the printing time. This implies that each blade is lighter, therefore it takes less energy to turn the blades and simultaneously it assists in keeping the blade cooler. Navrotsky told that you have the ability of enhancing the life expectancy of the product by 50% by means of cutting the temperature of the blade by 10°C.
Furthermore, Siemens is also 3D printing the burners for its turbines, creating one component where before there were 13 different parts that had to be welded together, which took time, energy and resources that are now no longer needed.
Also, this technology is set to revolutionize maintenance and repair operations as well. At present, in case a blade deteriorates, the whole thing has to be taken out and replaced. However, the tips of the blades wear out most rapidly owing to being exposed to biggest forces, the rest of the blade stays fit for use. Now, Siemens can cut off the worn-out tip of the blade and print a replacement directly on to the rest of the component, saving materials, inventory and logistics costs other than allowing for bespoke repairs precisely suited to the part in question.
Nevertheless, 3D printing cannot solve all manufacturing problems. It continues to be feasible chiefly for high-value, complex, limited edition products and components, mainly where it is vital to reduce weight. This is the reason for using it in healthcare, automotive, aviation and energy sectors.
However, as time goes on and costs fall, manufacturers and consumers harness the technology’s capabilities, it will change the way we make everything from clothes to ancient monuments destroyed in conflicts, reducing waste, energy and water use along the way. As Navrotsky stated:
“Over the next five years, I believe this technology will allow us to cut costs by 50%. Designing for Additive Manufacturing automatically creates more innovation. We are not working with AM because it is sexy but because it is an extra tool to multiply the knowledge we have in component design.”