During the last 2 years technological development in the field of 3D printing has been substantial. Industry and science continue their move on the path of digitalisation and additive manufacturing is gradually becoming an increasingly important part of the technological landscape of today’s industry. It’s clearly visible here, at InfoSoftware as one of our key products – iS Rapid, a system solution dedicated for rapid prototyping and remote production – is heavily reliant on this technology. We are now entering a crucial planning phase to enlarge the production potential of this tool, so on this occasion, we wanted to share with you some insight why we believe that investment in this technology is a wining bet.
Moving out of the shadows, into the light
Up until recently, 3D printing was considered an experimental form of manufacturing, worthy of modelling or prototyping at best. This image has been rapidly changing in recent years. New methods have been implemented and the variety of materials used for production is now nearly as broad as in traditional methods. Much of the drive seem to be powered by metal binder jetting technologies, which will take over traditional metal manufacturing market.
Today, this technology is in the mainstream. Maybe the best illustration of this fact is that BMW has announced that they’ve fitted more than one million 3D-printed parts in their cars… and that was in 2018!
It’s true that the automotive industry seems to be at the forefront of the “3D-print revolution” but this just illustrates the level of technological maturity and the potential waiting to be awakened in the near future. If you’re running a production business and you’re not considering moving towards 3D-print technology, you can find yourself left behind very soon!
Dedicated software solutions
One of the most important changes that is happening before our eyes – even when we’re not looking! – is redesigning software solutions for Computer Aided Design. It is quite a recent event that kay players in the field are releasing new versions or variants of their software solutions that are optimised for additive manufacturing.
Most crucial aspect of this process is shortening the distance (in time, money, effort and technology) between the design and production. Having a 3D plan is one thing, but planning the manufacturing process of you item is another – like in architecture, sometime you need to factor in some temporary supporting structures or cooling/drying time of your building material. Of course, in 3D print you have to be able to set (or at least take in account) parameters that other production methods do not need. This means you will either run a combination of multiple software solutions (with is greatly ineffective and can cause a lot of compatibility issues) or find a one tool that will alleviate these limitations. The latter is of course preferable for the user and this is what leading CAD software solutions are now beginning to offer.
On top of that, a feature that is becoming a mark of our times: remote teamwork. Being able to work gather your entire design team to work simultaneously on a project from remote location is already a thing. Still not all tools allow an efficient solution, but this is just a question of when, not if.
Then, even when have it all planned, the crucial next step is a “fire button” on your desktop. That is, of course, the potential not only to remotely design the product but also to remotely schedule it’s production. Connecting the CAD software systems directly to the workshop is basically how everyone imagined IoT will look like. Looking at where we’re at today and the direction of technological development, it seems we’re nearly there.
“Personalised” will advance AM onto a next level
Not so long ago, we’ve made a social media post featuring a custom made electric guitar – a passion-project of one of our team members. Our state-of-the-art rapid prototyping system has been launched and put to work in order to produce a pickup mounting ring of his design… If you don’t know what we’re talking about: it’s a piece of plastic not much larger than you pen, with a hole in the middle of it. Nothing fancy to brag about, right? Well, think about it: if someone can schedule an entire production facility to get a fairly small plastic piece, just because the ones available on the market do not suit his vision, why can’t you? Oh, did we mention that the idea, planning, design and manufacturing were done in different locations that were about 300 km apart?
This is exactly the field, where additive manufacturing, combined with remote design and production scheduling will shine the most. Two sides of the coin are “luxury” and “necessity”. The plastic part for a custom guitar represents the “luxury” side – the ability to get something exactly how you want it, personalised for you, being truly one-of-a-kind. It’s not that expensive anymore! But there is also the “necessity” side and that is best illustrated by medicine. Additive manufacturing is already being put to use in cardiac surgery, vascular surgery or even dental implants! There are all field when you need to get your objects personalised, adapted exactly to this one particular patient’s case. 3D printing technology is often very literally the lifesaver in these situations!
Both the “luxury” and “necessity” sides of the coin have one in common: they constitute a strong demand for 3D printing technology to be implemented and operated on an industrial scale with possibility of remote design and production scheduling as a key factor. We all know that wherever there’s demand, it will eventually drive the supply. In this case, this will be the first two markets that will generate demand, the supply and also, drive the technological growth of additive manufacturing and help it achieve new heights.
Additionally, these sectors will solidify a business model that can be called “manufacturing-as-a-service”. Flexibility of additive manufacturing allows one machine to produce artificial bones or teeth in one minute, guitar parts in other and aircraft engine parts the next… Possibilities are endless, but what’s most important is that this will drive manufacturing prices down, while the demand for qualified workforce will be even more pronounced than it is today.
Metal is the right music for additive manufacturingbile Applications
Metal manufacturing is the most valuable segment of the market and additive manufacturing is beginning to place itself as a viable production method and an important part of the landscape. Just to get it right: it is clear that additive manufacturing will not replace casting or injection moulding but it is biting of a large chunk of the market anyways. Still, even acknowledging a significant technological advancement in the last decade, “metal printing” is a long way from reaching its full potential.
On the one hand, the technology is available for industrial use today with most of early adopters located in aerospace and automotive industries. On the other hand, quality control and materials are still on the “to do” list.
Since 2019 we’ve seen a major breakthrough with the release of the machines being able to print out of materials like stainless steel or titanium alloys. It seems like these boundaries are being conquered each day. This is opening up new possibilities and thus driving a shift in metal manufacturing towards additive manufacturing, which is often the cheaper means of production.
Quality control and assurance has been a critical issue in recent years but not a dead end. Rapid rate of adoption of additive manufacturing in automotive industry seem to be the key driver and solution-provider here. We’re expecting that what is now considered “company policy” will become industry-wide standards and best practices within less than the upcoming 18 months.
AI and automation
As a continuation and extension of the point above, AI and automation technologies are helping to achieve repeatable high-quality results in 3D printing.
AI can improve quality and repeatability simply by extending the range of sensors that can be automatically operated and the capability of “on the fly” correction of the production process. This includes for example keeping track of the temperature in different parts of the product being made or the strain on the supporting structures. Currently, temperature management and composition of the supporting structures is still the task for the designer team. Slight miscalculation or even an unforeseen change of parameters can ruin the product and set back the whole process quite a lot. Adoption of AI that will literally “keep an eye” on the production and teaching it to make adjustments in the ongoing process will greatly contribute into setting additive manufacturing as the mainstream production method for large scale works.
This is where development of automation will be needed. Once large scale additive production will be made possible, the issue of large-scale post-production processes will need to be solved. While small-scale production doesn’t require a lot of automation (or none at all!), this will be a deal-breaker when the number grow high.
Having in mind that the leaders of aviation and automotive industries are investing in 3D-printing metal components, it seems reasonable to assumes that some breakthroughs could happen even by the end of 2021.
Summarising our 5 trends and predictions for the not-so-distant future, we’re expecting to see an important change in the production industry, in all of its sectors. The early-adopters have already made the most important steps, the path is not yet beaten but it is firmly set in the ground. What awaits for us in the future is less the case of problem-solving on experimental scale but rather a spill-over effect that will bring solutions developed in one segment to the entire industry.