What’s become one of the most discussed trends in technology and manufacturing may sound more like something from a futuristic movie rather than something that is taking off in the here and now — 3-D printing.
It may even sound expensive. In reality, 3-D printing is becoming increasingly accessible and can help companies improve manufacturing efficiency and cost structure.
Although 3-D printing was conceived and invented more than 30 years ago, investment in the technology has begun to soar in recent years as more businesses see its potential to drive a new industrial revolution, one that enables businesses to get their products to market faster than the traditional manufacturing processes.
Printing in three dimensions
Sometimes called “additive manufacturing,” the popular image of 3-D printing is a machine that prints 3-D objects. Successive layers of material are laid down — in the same way paint is sprayed — creating different shapes. A wide range of materials and techniques can actually be used in 3-D printing. As one of the companies at the forefront of the 3-D printing phenomenon, Rapid Prototype + Manufacturing LLC is expanding into 3-D printing metals in addition to a traditional focus on 3-D polymer materials.
“Three-D printing technology reduces product development time, allowing designers to create more products and get them to market faster,” says Matt Hlavin, CEO of rp+m. Hlavin decided to hit the ground running with 3-D printing back in 2009 after studying and following Stratasys, a leading original equipment manufacturer for Fortus Fused Deposition Modeling Machines, for 10 years.
“We saw the benefits on how this technology would help save our clients time and money,” Hlavin says.
The process differs from machining where successive layers of a solid are cut or drilled away in a subtractive process.The evolution
With 3-D printing, design engineers are now able to touch, feel and test their designs prior to investing in capital equipment, such as tooling, for traditional ways of manufacturing.
When the 3-D printing equipment started being used, the parts coming off of the machines were being used as prototypes. For example, a small household appliance company may use prototyping expertise in order to see a product before spending thousands of dollars on tooling. Over recent years, there has been an increase in end products being used on 3-D printers.
At rp+m, about 40 to 50 percent of parts come straight off 3-D printers as end-use production parts.
Auto parts manufacturers are finding that 3-D printing has shown that it is capable of supplying high quality fused deposition modeling parts within the characteristic time frame of the automotive industry. One such company has saved time creating parts that are less expensive and do not require the tool investment of traditional injection molded parts. A quick turnaround time is ideally suited for automotive industry time-sensitive projects.
With rapid prototypes, it offers the capability of showing the customer a 3-D model of the product at an early stage of the project. Engineers are able to produce prototypes and functional parts capable of enduring harsh factors, making them suitable for testing and validation. With 3-D printing, a company can make more prototypes, reduce design time and lower total cost by yielding less-costly parts.
The most recent game-changing technology for the polymer additive manufacturing users is the Arburg Freeformer, where pellet form polymer material can be used. Arburg integrated traditional screw and barrel processes from injection molding into 3-D printing, which offers an opportunity for quickly incorporating more materials that are already in production processes like injection molding.
Metals are taking the stage
While rp+m’s core business has focused on the polymers’ technology of 3-D printing, it is now expanding into 3-D printing metals. This opens the door for new end-use and industry technology.
With the acceleration of technology maturation in the metals space, all materials classes including metals, polymers, ceramics, electronic and biomaterials can be manufactured using 3-D technologies. Today, the metals technologies are becoming not just performance competitive but cost competitive enough to engage industrial users beyond just the first adopter metal and aerospace companies.
“Contrary to popular belief, the maturation of metals additive is actually supporting expansion of traditional manufacturing rather than substitution,” says Edward Herderick, Ph.D., director of R&D at rp+m. “For example, new approaches to printing high performance metal casting molds by companies like ExOne are leading to growth in the high value end of the supply chain where American manufacturing is the most competitive with other global economies.
“Another example is that the enhanced design capability enabled by metal powder bed fusion technologies like the one made by the EOS company are allowing for higher performance metal powders to be used in greater quantity.
“These powders are manufactured using more advanced approaches that require more metal forming, welding and machining and so it is lifting the overall industry as a whole.
“The materials and processes for 3-D manufacturing will continue to mature to the point where a new paradigm of ‘manufacturing by design’ will emerge to replace the current paradigm of design for manufacturing processes,” Herderick says.
“This will empower industrial designers of engineering systems to create their machines and components with full freedom to choose approaches based on the end use performance criteria rather than limitations of manufacturing processes.
“As a result, new product designs will increasingly mimic the elegant design of nature, maximizing performance and design content while minimizing waste. In the future, designers may use nature-inspired design to develop lighter, more streamlined parts and products and increase efficiencies in industries such as oil and gas drilling, and aerospace.”
Fostering a future
As the industry continues to grow and improve, students will be needed to learn the processes, since they are the future workers.
rp+m continues to work with local schools, students and teachers to make them aware and knowledgeable of not only the current uses of 3-D printing, but also what trends are surfacing. Tours have increased at the company’s engineering playground due to the encouragement given by teachers to bring their students in for a tour.
Students are so fascinated with the technology that they begin coming into school early, they want to be in the classroom during their study halls and will even stay late after school to see the 3-D printer in action.
rp+m’s model has been steadfast in being the expert in ideation through manufacturing. The company’s philosophy is to identify waste and innovation gaps that will transform clients’ business, and develop technologies, materials and processes that drive out the wasteful steps and time to help clients get to market faster.
How to contact: rp+m, (440) 930-2015 or www.rpplusm.com