3-D additive manufacturing advancements

Advancements in 3-D printing have made the technology more sophisticated and affordable. The automotive, aerospace, and medical industries have made some major strides recently, and 3-D printing is expanding as a means of engineering education.


A car was built with parts 3-D printed at IMTS 2014 in Chicago, gathering attention from many for the results, for the machine and motion control technologies used, and the material science advances. The car itself was made of carbon fiber reinforced polymer, and the wheels and hubcaps were printed using the direct metal process. The process took 44 hours and consisted of 40 parts. When it was completed, the car was taken for a test drive and gained a great deal of press attention.

Since then, 3-D printing, or additive manufacturing, has remained in the spotlight as new developments and enhancements gain the attention of industrial designers, manufacturers, and engineering-minded educators.

Microfactories for 3-D printed cars

Cincinnati Inc.'s Big Area Additive Manufacturing (BAAM) system was used to produce the 3-D printed car at IMTS 2014. Recently, they sold two of their systems to Phoenix-based Local Motors for their microfactories. BAAM features a work envelope of up to 2.4 x 6 x 2 m (8 x 20 x 6 ft), and the large-scale additive machine uses the chassis, drives, and control of Cincinnati's laser cutting system as the base. BAAM is linear motor-driven and extrudes hot thermoplastic to build parts layer by layer at speeds 200 to 500 times faster and up to 10 times larger than existing additive machines.

The microfactories will manufacture highway-ready, 3-D-printed cars, premium off-road vehicles with on-road capability, and neighborhood electric vehicles at the 40,000-sq-ft facilities, and each will be able to produce an output of up to 250 cars per year. Customers will visit the microfactory to design and purchase their vehicle, which is then produced on-site. Local Motors plans to open 100 microfactories around the world in the next 10 years.

3-D printing for aerospace, medical industries

A report by IDTechEx indicated that 3-D printing in metal is the fastest growing segment in the industry with sales growing by as much as 50% and material sales growing at over 30%. High-value, low-volume industries such as aerospace and biomedical, in particular, are taking advantage of 3-D printing because of how quickly items can be printed. Both the medical and aerospace industries are investing in alloys such as cobalt, nickel, and aluminum to provide versatility in what can be produced and printed.

Recently, GE Aviation and France's Snecma developed an engine for Airbus and CFM International's LEAP-1A engine. The engine was produced that uses fuel nozzles that are 3-D printed from a superalloy and carbon-composite fan blades woven from the ground up. The engine also uses parts from light- and heat-resistant ceramic matrix composites (CMCs).

Cincinnati Incorporated’s Big Area Additive Manufacturing (BAAM) system was used to produce the 3-D printed car at IMTS 2014. Courtesy: Cincinnati IncorporatedThe result is an engine that is designed to reduce carbon emissions as well as be more fuel-efficient. In the medical industry, 3-D printing is being used for static applications such as orthopedic implants. They are also being used to create models of teeth, bones, complex structures, and even a human heart for educational purposes. The models are designed to help doctors prep for complicated surgery by giving them a picture that isn't on a CT scan. They're also useful in an educational setting by giving doctors something tangible to work and experiment with instead of as an abstract concept. 

Industrial interest in 3-D printing

As 3-D printing becomes more cost-effective, manufacturers are becoming more interested in potential benefits.

Siemens and HP, for example, are looking to use technology to more easily advance 3-D printing from prototyping to full production utilization and create functional production parts that can be made from multiple materials in multiple colors. The technology is intended to increase print control, including material characteristics down to the voxel-level. (A "voxel" is a 3-D pixel.)

"Additive manufacturing technology is bringing about an industrial revolution in manufacturing, allowing business to use 3-D printing to realize creativity and innovation in product development," said Chuck Grindstaff, president and CEO, Siemens PLM Software.

Sciaky Inc., a subsidiary of Phillips Service Industries Inc. (PSI), has produced a metal 3-D printing technology called IRISS, or Interlayer Real-time Imaging and Sensing System. IRISS is designed to provide consistent process control for part geometry, mechanical properties, microstructure, and metal chemistry for large-scale 3-D printed parts. This technology monitors the metal deposition process in real-time and makes adjustments to the process parameters that compensate for variation throughout the build process. Sciaky's EBAM systems are designed to produce parts ranging from 8 in. (203 mm) to 19 ft (5.79 m) in length, but can also manufacture smaller and larger parts, depending on the application. 

3-D printed robot for educational purposes

Liberty Science Center in New Jersey has created an exhibition with a robot named SARA (Stevens Artistic Robot Animatron), which was created by students at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey. Courtesy: Stevens Institute of TechnologyImagine meeting a robot that can play "Simon Says," responds to commands, and even takes a selfie. At Liberty Science Center in Jersey City, N.J., one can do those things-and more-with SARA (Stevens Artistic Robot Animatron). SARA is a full upper-torso, interactive, human, 3D-printed robot. Students at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J., created the robot, which can move, swivel, raise its arms, pick up items, and wiggle its fingers.

LSC president and CEO Paul Hoffman said, "Many of our guests are in middle and high school-not much younger than the Stevens students. It is particularly exciting for us, and inspiring for our young guests, to have the Stevens team [members] sharing their amazing work with our community."

Based on work from French designer Gael Langevin and his InMoov open source project, SARA was transformed by computer-aided design (CAD). Approximately 100 components including joints, "bones," and other mechanical parts of the robot were printed in polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic.

Stevens Prototype Object Fabrication (PROOF) lab director Professor Kishore Pochiraju coordinated the exhibit with Liberty Science Center to inspire young people who visit the center. "We're so pleased to be able to bring Stevens' student ingenuity and a fun application of our own technology to their diverse audiences," Pochiraju said. "We hope it inspires some of these young people visiting the Science Center to become interested in science and engineering education and careers themselves."

Future of 3-D printing

Further developments will likely be on display at IMTS 2016 {add link} in September. Given the recent investments and dedication from companies on an industrial and educational level, AMT's Emerging Technology Center and other demonstrations seem likely to include additional advances in 3-D printed parts and additive manufacturing demonstrations, perhaps multiple cars or other transportation, as the next step for a technology that has the potential to change manufacturing processes.

Chris Vavra is production editor, CFE Media, Control Engineering, cvavra@cfemedia.com.


Key Concepts

  • Additive manufacturing/3-D printing technologies continue to advance.
  • Real-time monitoring and feedback improve large-scale printed metal quality.
  • Gee-whiz engineering helps encourage new engineers. 

Consider this

Is additive manufacturing disrupting your markets or erupting your opportunities?

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