Friday, November 21, 2014

Additive Manufacturing and the Future of our Industry


Additive manufacturing is becoming a “hot topic”. The manufacturing process was actually developed in the 1980’s, but hasn’t really picked up interest until the last few years or so. Since then, it’s sometimes more commonly referred to as “3D printing.” 

If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, additive manufacturing is the term that covers any and all processes involved in printing a 3-dimensional product. Historically, additive manufacturing technology has been expensive and typically used by the “bigger fish” in the field. However, recent advancements have enabled additive manufacturing to become more affordable. Ultimately, it will become a more common option for small manufacturers.

What does Additive Manufacturing Actually Do?

3D Printing and the manufacturing industry
Additive manufacturing can be complex. Traditional manufacturing calls for subtracting material from a larger block, think stamping parts out of steel or molding parts from melted plastic. Conversely, to try and describe it as simply as possible, additive manufacturing creates the part by building materials layer by layer through the control of a computer. The end result is a high precision replica of the original digital design. So long as there is a CAD file for the computer to process, nearly any object can be created in a 3D printer.

The technology is more than just “cool.” Its very nature reduces the amount of material required to produce a part. In fact, a recent article from Purdue University reports that new 3D printing algorithms have been shown to significantly reduce the time and material needed to produce objects. STEM education anyone? There are lots of opportunities for mathematically inclined and computer savvy individuals to excel in these new innovative design jobs for manufacturing. 

The Implications for Small Manufacturers

When additive manufacturing was first invented, the machines were very bulky and expensive. As interest increases, particularly from 2010 to 2013, we’ve seen the price of a basic 3D printer drop from $20,000 to $1,000.  This is a significantly more palatable price tag, depending on the nature of your products and services. The smaller price tag is particularly helpful for small manufacturing businesses looking to get a leg up on bigger manufacturing conglomerates.  Additive manufacturing systems exist with nearly any quality or complexity preference in design, which means that there is a printer perfect for any business’ need.

When used for a business, additive manufacturing can very quickly pay back its worth in production.

Current Trends: Additive Manufacturing in Action

Additive manufacturing seems to be booming in the aeronautical industry, as well as for other large manufacturers.  Lockheed Martin recently developed a new Big Area Additive Manufacturing (BAMM) machine that will be capable of printing objects of over 100 feet, which will be extremely beneficial and lucrative to aerospace designs.  Whole sections of machines can be created by one product, reducing the amount of time and cost it requires to assemble otherwise costly tools.

Additionally, there has been big growth with additive manufacturing programs for motors and generators.  Many generators and motors often require small, very specific parts, and by owning an additive manufacturing printer, it is possible to print the exact motor or gear needed to keep your generator running.

What’s Next?

At the moment, the possibilities are endless for additive manufacturing.  There have been developments made for apparel, defense, construction, medical, jewelry design and even a variety of art. While we’re still years away from the mass production of 3D printed parts, the process is gaining more and more traction. Industry analysts estimate it at $3 billion dollars a year and growing. Any manufacturing business will soon be able to find an additive manufacturing program for them.

Keep your eye out for more advancements in this area!

Since 1991, MMTC has assisted Michigan’s small and medium-sized businesses compete and grow. Through personalized services fitted to meet the needs of clients, we develop more effective business leaders, drive product and process innovation, promote company-wide operational excellence and foster creative strategies for business growth and greater profitability. Find us at www.mmtc.org

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