Do you see your world in 3D…Where the dimensions of economy (profit), environment (planet), and society (people) are equally considered in the realization of your manufactured product? Traditional approaches to manufacturing have relied far too heavily on resource intensive processes that don’t always balance the needs of society with the profit goals of the enterprise or the environmental protection that is required for the earth to maintain a healthy and vibrant ecosystem.
Manufacturing enterprises have become substantially more resource efficient and operationally intelligent in the past Century. Compared to the way Additive Manufacturing and 3D printing can enable, there hasn’t been as dramatic an opportunity for industry to realize transformational shifts in resource utilization, since the invention of the steam engine.
Additive manufacturing (AM) takes advantage of various processes used to make three-dimensional objects in which successive layers of materials are laid down under computer control. The objects can be of almost any shape or geometry, and are produced from a 3D model or other electronic data source. AM technologies and processes are now used in a wide-range of industries and to design, engineer, and manufacture higher-performance products. AM technologies and approaches include stereolighography (SLA), selective laser sintering (SLS), and direct metal laser sintering (DMLS).
Recent advances in topology optimization can, when blended with AM, provide the means for producing a new generation of engineered parts and products. A few years ago, AM and 3D printing were widely viewed as prototype-exclusive tools due to their relative high cost, limited material and finishing capabilities.
Today, AM and 3D printing tools and equipment can, when integrated with software for topology optimization, revolutionize the way in which products are designed, prototyped, and manufactured. AM and 3D printing provide unparalleled opportunities and freedom to product designers. AM and 3D printing are near a convergence point in assimilating a suite of software, materials, techniques, and finishing options that can springboard this novel technology into the forefront of sustainable product design and manufacturing.
As AM and 3D printing integrate science and technology into superior manufacturing capabilities, the only limiting factor will be our imagination. AM and 3D printing allow for the design, development, and manufacturing of more complex shapes and topographies which result in customized products at faster manufacturing cycle times.
The flexible design and production freedom of AM can enable sustainable design and manufacture of products. AM offers a new way to achieve competitive advantages in product design and manufacturing by addressing:
- Design freedom – Due to the wide-ranging potential of AM technologies, design opportunities are limited only by one’s imagination. Traditional manufacturing methods play a large role in the range of options that can be achieved for product designers. In the old world of manufacturing, equipment and machines drove design and product realization based upon the capabilities of the manufacturing equipment. In contrast, the AM world liberates design and provides the means to manufacture parts that would never have been conceivable (at least cost-effectively) with traditional manufacturing methods.
- Part optimization – AM can, when aligned with the right software, design tools, and material selections, allow designers to achieve optimum part design and performance according to characteristics and requirements that they establish. If a designer wants to optimize their part for materials utilization, production speed, or a variety of other factors related to topology, they can now do so. The latest capabilities of AM and 3D printing provide designers with tools and capabilities that can result in higher performance parts that use less material, energy, and natural resources to develop, manufacture, and use.
- Materials availability and scarcity – As a manufacturing process, AM only uses the material(s) necessary to realize the part geometry, scale, and size specified by digital design files. Because AM processes grow a shape by depositing layer upon layer of material, this approach is significantly less material intensive than other manufacturing approaches. An example would be the design and development of an injection mold using AM (growing the injection mold with only the right amount of material necessary) versus traditional methods of CNC machining (extracting material from a large block).
- Process and energy efficiency – When used as an integrated component of a “total manufacturing solution,” AM can be instrumental in reducing total energy consumption per part. For example, the potential of AM can allow for the development of custom injection molds/tools that more efficiently direct water or other forms of cooling to the mold, therefore reducing the time it takes to injection mold and cool a part. This achieves lower total energy for injection molders, and in addition, faster cycle times. AM can be a stand-alone manufacturing process/tool, or strategically included into a total manufacturing solution that helps manufacturers deliver high quality and performance products at every stage of the product life-cycle: design, prototype, tool making, production, and so on.
- De-materialization of products –AM offers potential to redesign existing or new parts that perform the same or better function, and which use less material. AM parts can be designed to be lighter weight, stronger, and with greater utility than parts manufactured from other processes. As such, AM parts are becoming a preferred solution for the medical device, transportation, aerospace, and defense industries as an opportunity to integrate stronger, lighter, and longer-lasting parts into their products. These industries are attracted by many benefits of AM, however the option to dematerialize a part can have dramatic impact on total product weight, energy use, performance and longevity. For example, in the aerospace industry, companies like GE, Boeing, Airbus, and Lockheed Martin seek to reduce the weight of aircraft to achieve fuel savings, higher performance (faster aircraft), lower weight and more space. The result is a next generation of aircraft that can carry more people and cargo, longer distances, at faster speed, while using less fuel, materials, and resources.
- Speed-to-market – With AM you can produce a part in hours, not the days or even weeks that may be required with other manufacturing methods. As a result, AM has become the process of choice for many design companies who want quick turn-around on precision prototypes at reasonable cost. In the consumer product sector, the life-cycle of many products is becoming shorter and shorter, in part because of ongoing advances in electronics and technology which make products obsolete in 18-to-24 month business cycles. As a result, many consumer product companies want a more flexible manufacturing opportunity, which balances speed-to-market with shorter-run manufacturing cycles. AM provides this kind of opportunity to cost-effectively bring new products to market quickly, and also enable a manufacturing volume that aligns with the fickleness of the marketplace.
AM delivers the means for designers, manufacturers, and society to visualize, advance, and accelerate the realization of manufactured products across three dimensions (people, planet, and profit). As shown in the visual, the opportunity and scale of sustainability potential and impacts is magnified as AM and 3D printing are used from the onset, and across the product development life-cycle.
Ultimately, the use of AM results in competitive advantages related to operational efficiency (i.e., achieving lower cost of manufactured goods) and development of products that achieve a differentiated and sustainable product performance advantage (i.e., products that are stronger, faster, lighter, use less energy, use less materials, etc.). Finally, the unique capabilities of AM can support a circular economy, one which is restorative, less depletive, and leverages the elegant capabilities of AM to support or enable sustainable design, sustainable manufacturing, sustainable product realization, and product remanufacturing.