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Moving into additive manufacturing

additive manufacturing

Additive manufacturing has moved beyond the domain of prototyping and low volume parts and moved into mass production, creating new opportunities for manufacturers

It is becoming more common than ever before for businesses to adopt additive manufacturing (AM).  Large and small operations, across a range of vertical industries are making the move because of the agility it gives them, along with the ability to design and print parts they could only have dreamed of before, with very limited retooling.

Understanding that investing in additive manufacturing is the next natural step for a manufacturing business is one thing, but knowing how best to approach the process, what to expect from a manufacturer and getting teams on board with the transition, can seem like a daunting process.

The world of industrial 3D printing has evolved at an incredible pace over the last ten years and seems to just keep accelerating.  “The days where additive manufacturing was seen as only suitable for prototyping, or simple low-volume production with plastics, are a long way behind us,” Nathan Rawlings, UK manager at EOS says. “Metal-based 3D printed components, for example, are being used in some of the most demanding use cases and enabling parts to be completely reimagined. Today’s DMLS printed parts perform way beyond the limitations of more traditional manufacturing techniques, making them lighter, stronger, with fewer components and more efficient assembly.

“There was a time when a state-of-the-art additive manufacturing system was defined purely by its production speed, reliability, and part quality. These things still matter of course, but the world of manufacturing has moved on: Industry 4.0, distributed production, digital warehousing, and improved sustainability are just some of the issues that are defining how the industry has started to evolve.”

The old rules are more important than ever

The ability to produce high-quality parts efficiently, dependably, and consistently is vital for all manufacturing organisations. As AM continues to evolve, new features have accelerated productivity, reliability, and repeatability to new heights. That holy trinity is being pushed forward by technological advances that exist inside and outside the build chamber and are helping organisations position themselves as innovators in their field.

For those getting started, there are four key areas that any organisation embarking on their journey into additive manufacturing needs to address in order to ensure the path is smooth and takes place at the speed the business needs.

1 -Find the application

“To justify any change to your manufacturing environment you need to consider the business implications of that change,” Rawling adds. “What you should not do is blindly buy machinery because of market trends.  Like any change to your manufacturing environment, even just dipping your toe into additive manufacturing, involves not only costs, but changes to working practices, health and safety, training, and maintenance regimes.”

Building a solid business plan for the role additive manufacturing will play in the organisations is key and allows business leaders to gain the confidence of stakeholders and find champions for its introduction in the business.  Organisations should also look at how AM can support wider business objectives, for example, the desire to move into a new sector, such as medical devices.

2 – Develop the application

Once an application becomes clear for AM in a business, time should be invested in looking at what it can bring to the party.  As a production method it may well help lower costs, or create a part that is stronger, or lighter, than would have been possible with subtractive techniques.  Lattice structures for example, while not visible to the naked eye could substantially improve performance in these areas and taking the time to understand how parts should be oriented and supported in the build area of a 3D printer can improve part quality and process stability.

“AM gives you freedom of design – the ability to rapidly amend designs and then print those parts so they can be tested,” Rawlings continues. “This type of rapid and agile application development is a real innovation opportunity for any business, and will accelerate the way your design team works, and how you production team can work with customers to innovate at speed.  Ask yourself, not only whether a part can be manufactured using additive manufacturing, but what does AM allow you to achieve in the design process that will bring about an improvement to the quality of a part or the efficiency with which it can be produced.”

3 – Ramp up your production

Moving from development to production is a crucial stage of the transition to AM.  It brings a wider group into the process such as machine operators, production, and quality engineers.  At this point, businesses need to work to understand how the manufacturing facility layout will look to suit their process chain, and whether new techniques for process monitoring and quality assurance, such as optical tomography, will be needed as part of production cycle.

“Training is one of the most important elements of ramping up production, and whilst the provider of your industrial 3D printers may be able train you on the features of their specific machines, that alone is not enough,” Rawlings explains. “Health and safety, QA and production workflow, are just a few of the areas that will evolve.  Work with training partners that can support the development of training programmes for all key roles that allows you to ensure high quality, rapidly delivered training that will allow your organisation to ramp up faster, while reducing the risk of problems, as the team acclimatises.”

4 – Certify and scale production

All manufactured products need to meet some form of, and often multiple standards in order to be regarded as safe for use.  Some industries, such as aerospace, automotive and medical devices, rightly have stringent rules, validation, and certification requirements for components because of the use cases.  Changing a manufacturing process or developing a new component will of course require those components to be certified.

This stage can really be split into two parts, operational, and performance qualification.  Operational qualification covers the implementation and validation of processes according to the legal requirements of an industry to ensure stable production.  It is important in this stage to identify areas of risk and document operational processes, so that they can be tested against regularly in the future, and indeed be used for future training.

Performance qualification is the businesses opportunity to provide detailed evidence that equipment and processes are working well within the defined ranges (defined in legislation and the operational qualification phases).  This stage is important, because it is the point at which the business can prove its ongoing manufacturing is meeting the accepted standard for a given industry, through the test strategies it develops.

Taking the leap

Rawlings believes that additive manufacturing is now mainstream and offers manufacturers an opportunity to bring new levels of innovation and performance to their products and use their competitive advantage to expand into new markets at speed.  “It is important to see the wholesale benefits that AM can bring, but with that does come a need for change at all levels of the business to reap the benefits,” he concludes. “Working with the right partner can not only help you select the right machine your business and design application, but also support the process and mindset changes that will get you operational faster and set for new business opportunities.  There is little point in buying a machine, to carry on working the way you always have.”

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