What do you think of when you think of 3D printing? Does it evoke images of Makerspaces and creative collaborators building huddled together, brainstorming over tea and tools? Does it make you picture a utopian future where cars, houses, boats are all simply printed out as one working whole? Or does it make you think of young bright minds, growing up using this imaginative form of technology to create and invent remarkable things? Well, for some industry leaders, when they think of additive manufacturing (aka 3D printing), they think of innovative parts that can both fit into and enhance already established manufacturing processes.

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Additive Manufacturing and the Aerospace Industry

One of the main benefits of utilizing 3D printing in the manufacturing process is that it allows for leaner manufacturing using fewer materials to create high-quality designs. This is seen in many industries including aerospace, which has seen 3D printing streamline their production. For example, Lockheed Martin used additive manufacturing on a targeted part- their bleed air-detect bracket. When made with subtractive manufacturing, the buy-to-fly-ratio was 33:1 which means that it took 33 pounds of stock metal to construct a one-pound machined bracket. However, after utilizing additive manufacturing to create this part, they were able to bring that ratio to almost 1:1, creating a 50% reduction in manufacturing costs.

In addition, the aircraft spare parts industry has undergone studies on how additive manufacturing can improve supply chain flexibility. These studies are important as there are hundreds of individual parts that go into aircraft and will need to be replaced in order for safety to be maintained. The typical process is for there to be scheduled times when parts will be changed since we’re normally able to predict when a part will be ready to retire, but (as anyone who owns a car will know) parts may need replacing at any random moment. Researchers in Finland, therefore, are proposing the creation of rapid-manufacturing centers for spare parts using 3D printing to replace some storage space.

Given the reduction in materials, cost, and added flexibility, many airlines are working on adding 3D printed parts to their aircraft safely and effectively. Take Honeywell, for example, who works closely with SLM Solutions to quickly manufacture parts for their aircraft. They’ve even created a streamlined way of testing the parts by having a computerized replication of the cockpit for engineers to monitor during flight. This allows the engineers to see the parts in action and to make sure that they’re working well when integrated with the rest of the equipment.

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Additive Manufacturing and the Automotive Industry

Similarly to the aircraft industry, the car industry also benefits from the increased flexibility in manufacturing when utilizing 3D printing. For example, according to Industrial Laser Solutions, this process was used by Jaguar when attempting to prototype their V8 air intake manifold. In the past, the process of manufacturing a prototype for this part would have cost thousands of dollars and it would’ve involved altering tools and parts along the way which would have taken several weeks. Using additive manufacturing, however, they were able to complete 17 prototypes for less than $1,000 and at an average of 1.5 days per manifold.

Ford was also one of the first in the automotive industry to embrace 3D printing, actually having purchased the third 3D printer in existence roughly thirty years ago. More recently, however, they’ve worked to adopt additive manufacturing processes into their Advanced Manufacturing Center. They recently utilized the technology to assist with prototyping and creating the 2020 Shelby GT500.

Not only did they use 3D printing technology to create prototypes of the vehicle parts, but they also used it in order to limit the unnecessary printing and testing of parts with virtual design testing. Additive manufacturing technology allows companies to test and tweak product designs prior to the prototyping phase in order to further streamline the production process. According to AMFG, Ford used this feature to test more than 500 cooling and aerodynamic 3D designs, which allowed them to reach their braking, cooling, and downforce targets. The 2020 Shelby GT500 also includes two structural 3D printed brake components, which were created using Carbon’s Digital Light Synthesis and EPX material.

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Additive Manufacturing and the Medical Industry

Another major benefit of additive manufacturing is the intricate complexity of the design capabilities. The fact that they can print complex designs like lattices or honeycombed structures allows a reduction of weight and materials since something that would once have taken several parts can now be one single part. This can come in handy particularly in the medical industry where parts like a heart or hip replacements require very intricate engineering. According to Deloitte Insights, “Medical manufacturers… have applied designed surface porosity to promote bone-cell ingress to hip-replacement components—with some components having 60 percent less material than the original, traditionally manufactured geometry.”

The current global pandemic has also dramatically shifted the medical community in the direction of additive manufacturing. When the supply needed to be changed drastically regarding medical supplies, the conventional supply chain wasn’t able to meet the demand. 3D printing was able to step in and come up with parts and quality supplies rapidly. According to Additive Manufacturing, companies such as HP plan to use a digital Parts Assessment tool to help analyze and identify areas where members of the medical community can utilize 3D printed parts.

According to HP’s interim director of 3D printing and digital manufacturing, Ramon Pastor, “Prior to COVID-19, much of the supply chain conversation and the evolution toward digital supply chains was focused on efficiency and transparency… Those priorities have not gone away; in fact, they are more important than ever. But another element has now come to the forefront of supply chain transformation, and that is risk mitigation. 3D printing has been so important in this crisis because it is inherently digital, localized, and sustainable, making it more immune to economic or geopolitical volatility.”