3-D printing has monopolized the news for its massive potential in almost every market, including automotive, aerospace, medical/dental, robotics and even toys and action figures. 3-D printing fits under the umbrella of additive manufacturing, the industry term for all applications of technology that join materials together to make objects from 3-D model data layer by layer. Additive manufacturing is characterized by assembling parts using only the materials you need, as opposed to subtractive manufacturing, which involves cutting away what is not needed from larger pieces of the material.

Chad Duty, Ph.D., the group leader of Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Deposition Science & Technology Manufacturing Demonstration Facility, presented a CAMX pre-conference tutorial on additive manufacturing, providing details on more than 15 manufacturing processes and their applications.

With so many markets turning to additive manufacturing, it’s of little surprise that GE has predicted 14 percent annual growth for additive manufacturing through 2017. The processes are becoming more and more relevant in medical and dental markets where customization is key, but Duty thinks the real near-term growth for additive manufacturing is in tooling. Duty cited a case study where Oak Ridge helped create a custom part for the Cherry Point, N.C., Fleet Readiness Center using additive manufacturing for a fraction of the time and cost of other manufacturing processes. “Tooling is a great application for additive manufacturing,” Duty said. “When you talk about four months and $50,000 versus under a week and a few thousand dollars, it’s a no-brainer.”

Duty was quick to note, however, that additive manufacturing is not always the right choice: It has distinct advantages and disadvantages. It’s up to each company and engineer to decide if additive manufacturing is the best process for their projects.

Advantages

  • Complexity is free: It actually costs less to print a complex part instead of a simple cube of the same size. The more complex (or, the less solid the object is), the faster and cheaper it can be made through additive manufacturing.
  • Variety is free: If a part needs to be changed, the change can simply be made on the original CAD file, and the new product can be printed right away.
  • No assembly required: Moving parts such as hinges and bicycle chains can be printed in metal directly into the product, which can significantly reduce the part numbers.
  • Little lead time: Engineers can create a prototype with a 3-D printer immediately after finishing the part’s stereo lithography (STL) file. As soon as the part has printed, engineers may then begin testing its properties instead of waiting weeks or months for a prototype or part to come in.
  • Little-skill manufacturing: While complicated parts with specific parameters and high-tech applications ought to be left to the professionals, even children in elementary school have created their own figures using 3-D printing processes.
  • Few constraints: Anything you can dream up and design in the CAD software, you can create with additive manufacturing.
  • Less waste: Because only the material that is needed is used, there is very little (if any) material wasted.
  • Infinite shades of materials: Engineers can program parts to have specific colors in their CAD files, and printers can use materials of any color to print them.