Industry Perspective: Disrupting Manufacturing as We Know It

Why are holes round? A question with an answer that many just take as an eternal fact: holes have always been round. The practical reason holes are round is because we have always used a subtractive process in manufacturing to remove what we want to create the part or product we need. The problem with subtractive processes is that they create limitations during manufacturing, which limits what we can design.

Additive manufacturing (AM) is changing this notion. Layer by layer we are able to create objects we couldn’t before. This is frequently done by a laser melting powders to create solid parts. We are also able to change materials with some AM processes allowing for the most optimal and efficient design of an object that is corrosion-, fatigue-, and wear-resistant, for instance.

AM is synonymous with 3D printing which has actually been around for about 30 years. Traditionally, 3D printing was mostly done with plastics and polymers; however, with technological advances over the past five to ten years we are bringing metals into the mix. We can think of AM as adding material rather than subtracting material to optimize a design. The current process allows us to print layers thinner than the human hair!

Adding material using AM allows us to be more efficient with material choice and with our designs. This is desirable because we can create parts that are lighter in weight, stronger in design, and better in fuel efficiency. A lattice design that is impossible to make in a subtractive process is easy with AM, which changes the way parts are designed and materials are selected. In fact, we can now mimic cellular design with the lattice structure and print titanium hip implants closely resembling bone structure allowing blood vessels and tissue to integrate more quickly around the implant which speeds recovery for patients.

Printers range in size allowing for printing parts such as wing spars for airplanes. These large printers print via a wire as opposed to metal powder. An electron beam bombards the wire with electrons thereby heating the wire to melt it into the desired shape. This type of AM process is akin to robotic welding…on steroids!

Well now we’ve discussed the benefits of the AM process, which is disrupting manufacturing as we know it. Disruption is both positive and negative. There are, of course, challenges that arise when a new technology emerges in the market. Now, if companies want to buy a 3D printed part, do they have that part shipped to them or can they just have a CAD file of the part emailed to them and then print it on site? What about customs? Border control? Import taxes? Furthermore, a CAD file can’t be patented so how is the IP protected? Data shows that this form of open manufacturing means that manufacturing is the highest susceptible industry to be cyber attacked, even greater than energy, water, and IT systems that are used to dealing with cyber threats. What about worker safety? Small particles used in the printing can be inhaled or even explode depending on its composition, which disrupts our current fire and safety codes. How about the companies that lead the way? Their stock prices tend to soar with the excitement of the new technology and then drop drastically when the realities of the problems are discovered. Eventually, their stock prices will even out and hopefully climb as the technology matures, but it all depends on the way the disruption is handled by the companies who are willing to take risks and redefine their industry and the markets they serve.

The great thing about this new technology is that it gives rise to more startup companies and opportunities. We are truly only limited by our imagination. Only time will tell how long holes will remain circular.

This article was written by Timothy W. Simpson, Ph.D., Paul Morrow Professor of Engineering Design and Manufacturing Director, Additive Manufacturing & Design Graduate Program, Co-Director, Penn State CIMP-3D, The Pennsylvania State University.