Additive Manufacturing
Thursday | 07 December, 2017 | 11:33 am

Early adopters

Written by By Corinna Petry

Above: Automotive crank part made in a Concept Laser 3D printing machine.

Big players are making inroads but should small and midsize companies play the 3D lottery?

December 2017 - Attempting to comprehend 3D printing’s fast-paced developments and challenges is like trying to catch lightning in your hand. You might get burned.

However, experts are now available who have explored each aspect of this rapidly growing field and who can advise those companies that don’t want to risk large capital on new machinery and processes that might not work out—like the Betamax. (For those readers too young to recall, Betamax was a high-quality video format killed off by VHS in the 1980s. Likewise, VHS has since been killed off by Blu Ray and streaming.)

According to research by Dr. Jason Jones, co-founder of Hybrid Manufacturing Technologies, McKinney, Texas, there are seven “families” of additive manufacturing (AM). At Fabtech 2017, a panel of consultants, academicians and technology providers unanimously acknowledged that it will take several years to standardize AM methods being launched today but that should not stop engineers, designers and fabricators from trying different systems out.

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Airbus installed a titanium 3D-printed bracket on an in-series production A350 XWB aircraft in September 2017. Built by Arconic using additive-layer manufacturing (ALM) technologies, the bracket is part of the aircraft pylon.

Let’s run down a few recent announcements to provide a scale of how huge AM is becoming.

Arconic and Airbus partnered to advance metal 3D printing for aircraft parts. Together, the companies will develop customized processes and parameters to produce and qualify large, structural 3D printed components up to 3 feet long. Arconic will use electron beam high deposition rate technology, which prints parts up to 100 times faster than technologies used for smaller, more intricate parts.

GE Additive unveiled, on Nov. 14, the first BETA machine—a laser powder-bed fusion machine to provide makers of large parts and components with a scalable solution that can be configured and customized to specific industry applications. Suited to industries that require large complex metal parts, such as aviation, automotive, space, and oil and gas, the first few BETA machines are being evaluated by a small group of customers and more will be produced for delivery in 2018. The machine’s build volume is 43.3 inches by 43.3 inches by 11.8 inches.

LPW Technology Ltd. formed a partnership with Airbus APWorks GmbH in November, under which it will supply Scalmalloy, the aluminum-magnesium-scandium alloy, to the additive manufacturing sector. LPW is accredited to AS9120A standards for aerospace. Scalmalloy offers a low buy-to-fly ratio compared with conventionally designed and manufactured parts, LPW states.

GKN plc, Redditch, United Kingdom, is joining with GE Additive, Concept Laser and Arcam AB to collaborate on AM. Under the pact, GKN becomes a GE Additive development and production center as well as a preferred metal powder supplier, while GE and its affiliated companies will supply additive machines and services to GKN. (GKN was the subject of Modern Metals’ September 2017 cover feature).

Heraeus, Hanau, Germany, has nearly doubled its portfolio of special alloys and high-value metals over the past year to about 20 new high-quality metal powders. The portfolio includes Scalmalloy and applications range from race cars to control nozzles on satellites.

Sciaky Inc. and Lockheed Martin produced titanium propellant tanks using Sciaky’s Electron Beam Additive Manufacturing (EBAM) technology. For this application, Lockheed Martin Space Systems reduced costs by 55 percent, material waste by 75 percent, and production time by 80 percent using EBAM, versus traditional forging methods.

MX3D is 3D printing a stainless steel bridge to cross the Oudezijds Achterburgwal canal in Amsterdam. Printing and fabrication began in May 2017 and the bridge is scheduled to open in June 2018.

Airbus installed a 3D printed titanium bracket on its A350 XWB in September. Arconic is printing these parts in its AM facility in Austin, Texas.

Norsk Titanium, an FAA-approved supplier of aerospace-grade, AM structural titanium components, opened its new factory in Plattsburgh, New York, in October. This facility houses nine of Norsk’s proprietary Rapid Plasma Deposition titanium printing machines. The AM factory will produce aerospace components for Boeing and other airframe builders. (Norsk Titanium was featured as Modern Metals’ January 2016 cover story).

The list of machinery builders that have developed designs for metal AM has lengthened considerably in the past couple years: Arcam, Cincinnati Inc., Renishaw, Sciaky, FabriSonic, Markforged, Trumpf, Mazak, Met-L-Flo Inc., Concept Laser GmBH, OR Laser and more.

It isn’t just the machines and metal powder formulations that are emerging, it’s the software that links printers (entire printer farms even) and guides the production programs, and it’s ongoing research at institutions around the globe. This is the latest industrial revolution.

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Many companies have developed additive manufacturing machines, including GE Additive’s Concept Laser (above) and Trumpf’s TruPrint 5000 (below). Both of these models use fiber laser technology.

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Why AM?

Another recent startup—Watertown, Massachusetts-based MarkForged—touts AM as the way to reimagine designs, shrink lead times by 75 percent and cut costs. Speaking at Fabtech, CEO Greg Mark said his company was founded in 2013, shipped its first composite printer in 2014 and has since shipped thousands of printers to over 50 countries.

“Our mission is to liberate designers and engineers from decades-old technologies and processes.”

One thing that’s become obvious in the fourth industrial revolution is that hardware development lags software development by a factor of ten.

“Creating value in hardware is slow and cumbersome. Automobiles, for example, are especially complicated, having hundreds of thousands of parts. Each part has to be prototyped, manufactured and finalized, tooled and then produced. Each piece of the car goes through dozens of prototypes and iterations before reaching the final design. Even for small, simple products, the process takes up to two years,” Mark said.

“We have to close the gap,” he continued, noting that his company offers a low-cost alternative, the Metal X printer, that can be scaled down to make prototypes, and then scaled back up—with the purchase of multiple printers—to achieve commercial-scale production volumes.

The Metal X package doesn’t reinvent the wheel. It tweaks injection molding technology, including existing post-processing equipment for that technology.

“That’s our view of the future. Take printers that are scaled down in cost, put them together in parallel like [computer] servers. Run them at high capacity to make parts for a low per-instance cost. Now you have smart, affordable hardware managed collectively with a cloud software platform,” said Mark.

As a result, a design-to-production cycle that took two years comes down to four to six months. And there is “greater freedom of complexity in design.”

Curb your enthusiasm

The next challenge is how to make sense of these developments and sort out which system might work best so that your company can lower costs of production and continue to meet rigorous customer requirements.

“Events such as Fabtech offer thrills for those looking for what’s new and exciting for applications and opportunities to leverage AM,” said Todd Grimm, president of T.A. Grimm & Associates Inc., Edgewood, Kentucky. “There will be some temptation to act impulsively, [and] override caution.

“If you’re falling into this trap, or sense that others in your organization are mesmerized with the latest thing in AM, curb your enthusiasm, at least momentarily. All things new are relatively untested and therefore carry an inherent risk for early adopters,” Grimm said Nov. 8 at the show in Chicago.

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Any new technology has “some surprises in store for users,” he said. The surprises will result, first, “from a tiny user population that’s able to validate vendor claims, declarations and disclosures; and second, a limited scope of operations to determine what works and when.”

Potential outcomes and rewards can far exceed the inherent risk but each manufacturer must assess its own risk threshold. “Will marginal or poor results jeopardize careers, AM initiatives, corporate goals or business operations? Is your company generally risk averse?” If “yes,” then a sizable investment in a new AM technology may be ill advised. “If the threats are acceptable, proceed with a thorough investigation,” Grimm said.

He advised engineering and fabricating departments to “investigate everything” despite the fact that with new technology, it’s hard to discover a baseline from which to launch such a probe.

Research should include: hardware (reliability, failure modes and real performance), software (functionality and limitations), materials (availability and processing challenges), output quality (properties, finish and accuracy), training needs, and required supporting equipment (all tools needed for the end-to-end process).

Test and verify

To unearth facts, Grimm suggests buyers talk to existing users. “Talk to as many test sites and commercial installs as you can. Along with an honest assessment of the technology, determine the supplier’s receptiveness to feedback from testing and how responsive it was in implementing fixes.”

He also advises having the machinery builder make benchmark parts for products you want to print; and to visit in person to witness the process.

Early adopters of AM parts and components to date have included NASA, the U.S. armed services, aerospace and defense companies, Caterpillar Inc. and many commercial giants, but even small manufacturers like oil and gas valve producers have found metal 3D printing to be the right choice. It might be time for your company to determine how to capture that business. MM


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