February 27th, 2013
Additive manufacturing is becoming affordable in the home
Recently, I was lucky enough to attend a Future of Advanced Manufacturing Innovation Masterclass in Redcliffe. It was hosted by The Advanced Manufacturing Cooperative Research Centre (AMCRC). The event focused on the opportunities for industry of Additive Manufacturing, which is also known as 3D Printing (or, in some cases, rapid prototyping). The workshop was chaired by Bruce Grey, Managing Director of the AMCRC, who provided a wealth of information to Queensland’s manufacturing small to medium size enterprises (SMEs).
Throughout the workshop we witnessed some great examples of innovation in Australia and beyond, and also received a glimpse of how products will be made in the future .
So what is additive manufacturing?
“Additive manufacturing is a technology that will improve people’s quality of life and reach a level of pervasiveness reminiscent of the introduction of laptops”
ANU Edge focus group member
The above quote was presented at the workshop by Dr Matthew Doolan (Project Leader of ANU Edge) and is from a focus group exercise for an AMCRC project that is assisting Australian manufacturers in taking full advantage of the possibilities of additive manufacturing and really highlights its potential.
What is additive manufacturing?
Additive manufacturing is a process by which three-dimensional objects are created from a computer-aided designed (CAD) digital model. A machine fires a laser or electron beam to melt a thin layer of deposited powder resin (either polymer or metallic) and, as each distinct geometrical layer is put down, ultimately builds a unique product.
Additive manufacturing can be contrasted with traditional forms of manufacturing in that blocks of raw material are machined and tooled to produce a new object. This process results in a lot of waste plus machinery and tools need a significant amount of costly maintenance.
The excitement surrounding additive manufacturing relates to both the opportunities it creates to reduce overheads and waste and also, thanks to computer-aided design, the possibility of creating unique products. Such affordances allow for the development of new manufacturing business models where SMEs can create bespoke, on demand and specialised products with much reduced overheads.
An early adopter of this technology has been in the prosthetic and dental implant industry. Additive manufacturing permits a high degree of accuracy in the manufacture of customised prosthetics and implants that are both specific to the individual and with shorter lead times. Examples include hip joints, dental braces and maxillofacial prosthetics. The power of this process has been demonstrated in the manufacture of prosthetic limbs for Iraqi citizens injured by improvised explosive devices in the recent insurgency. As this Medical Design Magazine states this is engineering at its best.
Aerospace and military
Additive manufacturing has been used to create parts in the aerospace industry. Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner for example, has around 900 non-critical parts that have been produced through this process.
At the Redcliffe event, Des Hill of Brisbane based engineers Ferra described the additive manufacturing of a part for the wing section of a US Lockheed Martin F-35 fighter jet. The part is produced in Brisbane and then sent to the States for assembly with the rest of the aeroplane. Ferra uses titanium powder as the raw material and produces the part through additive manufacturing combined with a separate process called thermal machining. Des Hill showed evidence of significantly reduced production costs at Ferra, which have been passed on, in part, to Lockheed Martin, thus making the Brisbane-based company internationally competitive as a supplier.
In Afghanistan, the US Army now has two mobile lab units for the rapid manufacture of parts for the fixing of equipment. These manufacturing labs are mounted on the back of a lorry and can rapidly produce equipment parts. This is incredible as it means that equipment can be produced in hostile areas without requiring traditional logistics. Supply chains are streamlined and parts are fixed iteratively; in other words, modifications and improvement can be made on the fly based on feedback from soldiers. Take a look at the 3ders.org website for more details
Additive manufacturing allows for the unique design of consumer products. This company for example, allow customers to design a bespoke mobile phone case using online software. Meanwhile, 3D printers are now becoming affordable to allow people to create objects at home. Cubify is one of a number of vendors selling 3D printers that allow all sorts of items to be manufactured in the home including children’s toys, jewellery and utensils.
This year’s 2013 Horizon report positioned 3D Printing as an educational technology to watch in the next few years. The technology has, in particular, real potential for exploratory learning. In disciplines such as geology or archaeology, students can examine physical structures that have been previously scanned from physically fragile artefacts such as fossils or skeletons. The 3D scans of the artefacts may have been made available on the web by a museum or university and shared openly for educational purposes. Educational institutions can then download the scans and create models on demand for exploratory learning.
In medicine, an MRI and CT scan coupled with additive manufacturing technologies allows for the rapid production of organ models from real medical cases, which can assist in the teaching of surgical techniques to medical students. Meanwhile, engineers and design students can prototype designs thanks to this technology, whilst business students can derive entrepreneurial activities and business models for new products.
Some final thoughts
Additive manufacturing is here to stay. In Australia, a number of enterprises are already taking advantage of it and its potential for the future is truly colossal. In an interesting reversal of the digital age, physical objects are created from digital assets rather than physical objects being digitised. This innovative approach to manufacture has the potential to disrupt supply chains, generate new business models, improve health outcomes and allow people to create and explore objects both new and old.
How exciting is that?