How viable is additive manufacturing?

In 1984, Charles Hull invented the first 3D printer, which used stereolithography to build up a plastic product layer by layer. Over 35 years later, additive manufacturing (AM) is drastically altering a range of industries. To the field of medicine, the manufacturing industry, and all in between. But what are the limitations of 3D printing?

In some applications, component manufacturing is shifting away from traditional subtractive machining methods. Companies are now shifting their focus to techniques of additive manufacturing. The broadening of the applications of AM is causing manufacturers to assess the viability of using it in their own facilities. Before resorting to the use of 3D technology, there are a few things that need to be taken into consideration.

Quality not quantity

When moving from one type of manufacturing to another, quality is a very crucial factor. Particularly, in highly regulated industries. For instance, aerospace and medical devices.

In fact, quality has been one of the major hurdles to the widespread adoption of AM. One critical consideration is that quality and consistency must be the same from machine to machine, regardless of location.

Powder bed fusion

Powder bed fusion is one of the most frequently used additive manufacturing methods. However, there is a possibility that it may introduce defects. Although, if the process has a constant thermal gradient, it can prevent warping of the product. Therefore, avoiding the introduction of defects caused by incorrect temperatures.

Another concern is that unsintered powder will degrade as a result of heat exposure. This could impact the overall quality. However, regular changing of the powder can prevent this from becoming an issue.

Manufacturing companies can rest easy about the quality of their AM system investment if they team up with a reliable partner. For instance, one who provides training and support on best practice. Those looking to invest in AM parts produced elsewhere should be mindful of their supplier’s approach to quality. This is done to guarantee that the item they are acquiring is up to their standards.

The perfect 3D printer materials

It is possible to 3D print using polymers, ceramics, and metals. However, plastic 3D printing remains the most popular. While it is feasible to print many materials, some are more suited to the process than others. If you choose the wrong material, this will also have an effect on the quality.

If you are manufacturing a product from a material unsuited to AM, you may have to rethink your options. Either by, altering the material itself or by selecting a technique that uses a subtractive process.

Ultimately, it won’t usually make good economic sense to switch to AM from conventional manufacturing. This is unless AM offers significant benefits to the application.  For instance, by drastically reducing the amount of weight. Also, if your design is extremely complex and will require expensive custom tooling, AM may be a better option.

Additive manufacturing is a fantastic technology that has brought great design freedom to many applications. However, it is not a one-size-fits-all approach. Companies should carefully consider whether they truly need to produce a component using AM. Taking the time to consider the cost, productivity, and practicality of incorporating AM into their processes.

In many situations, producing and sourcing parts the 'old' way — ordering them from a reliable supplier — may be the best approach.