However, even with all of these innovations and gadgets, these technologies and revolutions, the surest sign that we’re living in the future is still additive manufacturing.
In the R&D world—not to mention the consumer and medical worlds, to some extent—this little piece of Star Trek tech has certainly earned its futurist cred. After 30 years of practice, engineers are now transforming metal dust and reels of plastic into high-definition prototypes—functional as well as representational—and clever new tools, toys, limbs, and devices that are saving time, money, and lives all over the world.
It’s an exploding market that is still not even close to tapping tapped its full potential.
In an age saturated by cool, exciting technologies, additive remains the coolest, most exciting technology out there... in some markets.
Down on the plant floor, however, the 3D excitement has remained, well, mild.
According to the most recent Wohler’s report of the industry, the industrial 3D printing market is worth just around $800 million. While that does represent a massive 76% year-over-year growth compared to the $64 billion traditional machine tool market, additive is clearly still a small niche in the overall manufacturing industry.
This is a little surprising. Over the last few years, metal printing has seen rapid developments both in terms of machine and material capabilities. And yet, even with GE Aviation’s extremely high profile 3D-printed fuel injector project, additive OEMs have had difficulty breaking into the conservative, speed and efficiency-driven world of hardcore manufacturing.
Additive technologies, it seems, still haven’t earned the “manufacturing” label.
“Additive manufacturing has come a long way and the technologies have evolved very rapidly over the last couple of years,” explains Gisbert Ledvon, director of business development at GF Machining Solutions (GFMS). “But at the end of the day, it just hasn’t been industrialized yet.”
That may be so. However, GFMS has a plan to change that.
Phase One: The Partnership
In early October, GFMS announced a partnership deal with global metal additive leader, EOS, to design a new approach to industrial 3D printing that could offer a road to true industrialization.
“With this partnership, we are combining our two companies’ expertise and technologies,” explained Andrew Snow, senior vice president of EOS North America.
|The product of the first phase of a partnership between GF Machining Solutions and EOS, the AgieCharmilles AM S 290 Tooling Additive Manufacturing machine is designed to improve efficiency and capabilities in the mold and die process.|
The keystone offering of this partnership demonstrates this integration at the most literal level.
Dubbed, the AgieCharmilles AM S 290 Tooling additive manufacturing system, this new industrial 3D printing machine wraps the proven and already well-established Direct Metal Laser Sintering technology of EOS’s M290 system into a GF Machining Solutions frame. In the process, it creates a direct bridge between EOS’s industrial 3D printing and GFMS’s machining, automation, and software systems.
In short, it puts 3D printing directly into the mix of the traditional manufacturing tools of one of the world’s best manufacturing tool makers.
Fitting the Mold
The AM S 290, Ledvon and Snow agree, is just the start of this project—an introduction of GFMS customers to the largely unexplored field of additive manufacturing.
In this case, it means the first step to industrialization begins with GFMS’s largest customer base: mold and die makers.
“The idea behind the project is to provide a new solution for the mold maker,” Ledvon says. “The mold maker knows us; the mold maker knows our service department; and the mold maker knows our application teams. So what we’re trying to bring is this new additive manufacturing technology to these mold makers to provide them a new tool to make better components.”
In terms of industrialization of the technology, 3D printing molds is a perfect start.
As Ledvon explains, mold makers are already pushing the limits of traditional machining. As the demand for smaller, more intricate and complicated parts rises, the injection molds used to create them must be equally intricate and complicated.
These molds require impossible heating and cooling channels and confounding engineering feats to provide the particular, consistent characteristics the OEM customers need.
That’s where additive comes in.
The Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DMLS) process works one layer at a time, depositing particle-thin layers of metal powder down on the build plate and then melting exactly the shapes and contours needed for a component with a precision laser. The process is repeated, layer by micro-thin layer, until the part is fully grown from the bottom up.
Because of this unique process, engineers can design any construction or architecture they can dream up inside a solid structure, creating cavities, circuits, and textures where no machine tool could ever reach.
For mold makers, this is a game-changer.
|See: Additive Mold Making: The Real World Test|
“With this technology, engineers can design conformant cooling circuits into their molds to shorten the cooling time and shorten the cycle time,” Ledvon said. “It will help them with productivity; it will help them with quality of the part. They will get faster parts in better quality.”
According to Snow, this can add up to a mind-blowing 60% reduction in cycle times, while also reducing scrap rates, freeing up machine tools, and generally saving time and money across the enterprise.
All of this sounds fantastic. It’s a sales pitch that can’t miss: Better parts, faster and cheaper. It seems too good to be true.
The Voice of Reason
In principle, Terry Wohlers—president of 3D printing research firm, Wohlers Associates—is excited about the EOS/GFMS project.
“I think this is precisely what needs to happen,” he says. “The machine tooling industry has a wealth of knowledge and experience producing high-quality precision machines and additive people like EOS have a lot of experience fusing materials in powder beds, which is something the machine tool industry lacks.”
“Putting them together really is smart,” he says.
However, he also points out some important facts about laser sintering to tame the blind excitement the promise of 60% improvements in cycle time may inspire.
Specifically, he notes that DMLS isn’t quite as easy as it seems. While it does bring all of the new potential and capabilities Snow and Ledvon highlight, the process still requires a bit of post-processing work before it’s ready for the floor. Quite a lot, actually.
“Once you’ve finished the last layer of your part, it is fully embedded in powders—it’s in every channel, everywhere, all the way through,” he explains. “Somehow you have to remove that powder, and you’re not going to get that powder out of conformal cooling channels easily.”
Usually, he says, this requires manual intervention—blowing or removing powder with picks and brushes. Dirty, time-consuming work.
From there, he explains, the piece has to be cut from the build plate, usually with a wire EDM machine. Then the support structures or anchors have to be removed either manually or with CNC milling. Then heat treatment. Then more machining to get the surface finish to spec. Then blasting, coating, etc.
“You can have as many as 10 or maybe 12 distinct steps in post processing,” he says. “There’s a tremendous amount of work required.”
|After printing, laser sintered parts require extensive manual and machine post processing to remove the build plate and supports along with any excess powder from internal structures.|
And that, succinctly put, is the real roadblock to industrialization.
Manufacturing is an industry built on speed. On efficiency. On modularity and lean, process-focused efforts. For most manufacturers, metal printing just doesn’t fit that mold.
Phase Two: The Future
The AgieCharmilles AM S 290 Tooling is just the first step for the GFMS/EOS project. The “seamless integration” that led to the simple co-branding of the machine in 2015 is leading the way to something much bigger and much more disruptive in 2016.
“We’re planning to integrate our systems into a full process chain solution,” EOS’s Snow says. “We’re building a seamless, automated interface between additive manufacturing and subtractive manufacturing in a production environment.”
|Combining the efforts of additive manufacturing, 5-axis HSC milling, and laser texturing, GF Machining Solutions was able to create a lightweight, high-detail cup mold that would have been impossible or impractical to manufacture through traditional means.|
“The next step is to automate the process,” Ledvon says. “We need to design a system that will take these parts from the build plate without re-referencing the part into the next process—be it 5-axis machining, EDMing, or whatever it needs to be.
“Basically,” he explains, “we’re creating a true e-manufacturing process.”
Along the way, they are also finally matching additive with the industrial workflow.
“This is the next step in industrialization,” Snow says. “We are improving the ease of use of the technology from a secondary post-processing standpoint. This is the critical element people need as they move additive technology toward production.”