Over the last five years, two main advances have helped additive manufacturing (AM) evolve from a prototyping technology to a viable production method. The first is in material development, where manufacturers can now create parts not just with plastics, but metals and other advanced materials. The second is in the sheer capabilities of AM machines.
Additionally, improvements in materials have advanced machine capabilities, and vice-versa, continuously propelling the industry forward to the point where AM is fast, can work with a wide range of materials, and delivers high levels of accuracy. But the next AM leap may not be due to materials or machines, but rather reimagining what is possible.
Part Consolidation with Additive Manufacturing
A prime example of the emerging paradigm shift is redesigning an assembly made from multiple pieces so that it becomes a single part that can be manufactured using AM technology. For example, I’ve been working with a manufacturer on a power generator’s burner nozzle; the original part comprises five individual components, which we’re consolidating into a single unit that eliminates the need for assembly. And because we’re redesigning the part — as opposed to simply replicating it — we’ve been able to increase its strength and temperature threshold.
Moreover, this particular generator has around 30,000 parts, which presents a huge challenge: Trying to keep 30,000 parts in stock. So in addition to redesigning and consolidating parts, we’re also transitioning to a digital inventory. Instead of physical parts collecting dust in a warehouse, we’re developing a database of digital part designs. Using these files, additive manufacturing can support creating parts when they are needed much more quickly than traditional methods.
In traditional manufacturing, a part may require creating a mold and casting the part. Or it may be better to use CNC machining to grind, mill or drill the necessary features into the part, and perhaps weld or hand-assemble additional pieces to create what is needed. All of this takes time, labor and, at low volumes, considerable financial expense. Additive manufacturing can greatly reduce these resource drains by producing what you want, when you want it. Plus, the costs associated with maintaining physical inventory essentially disappears.
Designing for Performance vs. Production
The biggest hurdle for many companies is shifting from a tactical perspective to a strategic perspective when it comes to product design. A tactical approach to AM technology is simply to develop a workable geometry for a part — i.e., “We need a particular shape, so we’ve designed a part in that shape.”
A strategic approach, on the other hand, is to specify performance parameters for the part. For example: It needs to withstand a certain temperature and torque, or flow a specific amount of gas. This strategic approach enables us to choose an optimal material for the part, and create an optimal design and optimal part geometry. By starting with a part’s ideal performance parameters, new doors are opened to what’s possible. It’s a transition from designing for what a manufacturer can make — and the inevitable accompanying compromises — to designing for performance.
Some Examples of What’s Possible with AM
Companies are embracing this strategic approach across a wide range of industries and products. The General Electric engineers who worked on its Catalyst turboprop engine, for example, have consolidated 855 parts into just 12 parts, which has not only reduced inventories but reduced the overall engine weight by 5 percent and reduced fuel consumption. GE achieved these results by using a strategic approach to ask questions such as, “Does this section need to be solid? If not, can we decrease material costs and weight?” Now, instead of sourcing 855 pieces from various vendors and locations, these 12 new parts are produced entirely on site.
Hewlett Packard’s 500/300 Series 3D printers now contain consolidated parts made with 3D printers. The original cooling duct was made of separate pieces, which were consolidated into one, reducing costs by 30 percent. HP’s internal teams were inspired by the realization that they could use the company’s own technology to improve its products and explored ways to apply AM to its designs. In HP’s Indigo 12000 Digital Press commercial printer, their engineers incorporated 21 3D-printed parts that resulted in an 80-percent cost saving and 91-percent assembly reduction.
What’s Possible for You?
Need additive manufacturing advice? The MEP National NetworkTM is a network of state-based Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP) Centers that staff experts dedicated to helping small and medium-sized manufacturers understand and adopt new technologies such as additive manufacturing.
If you have questions about AM and suspect your company could benefit from the technology, contact your local MEP Center. They’ll be able to work with you to determine whether your business can benefit from AM and — perhaps most importantly — help you think strategically about AM solutions that will help grow your business.
Dave Pierson is a senior design engineer at MAGNET, the Manufacturing Advocacy and Growth Network. Part of the MEP National Network, MAGNET provides hands-on support ranging from new product design to operations, and brings education and business together to create tomorrow’s manufacturers.