Low-cost 3D printers have done a great job of putting additive manufacturing (AM) – the process of making objects layer upon layer – on the map, but they only scratch the surface of what this approach has to offer. To see the full range of opportunities, it’s worth taking a deeper look.
The European collaboration of rapid manufacturing has done just that and its 2013 Strategic Research Agenda (SRA) report (PDF) is a worthwhile read for anyone wanting to know more about a field that also goes by the name of direct digital manufacture or e-manufacturing.
Frits Feenstra, who co-ordinates the platform, is well versed in AM, which encompasses a range of processes such as powder bed fusion, directed energy deposition and material jetting.
“3D printing brings something different to the party,” he told delegates at COMS 2013. To support the comment, Feenstra points out that AM gives you the opportunity to embed sensors or to integrate multiple materials and create graded structures with a distribution of physical properties.
Scaling-up custom manufacturing
Feenstra is based at TNO in the Netherlands, which has been developing additive manufacturing technologies for more than a decade. Last year, the research organization unveiled a demonstration platform dubbed PrintValley to highlight options for mass production of customized parts, in this case using materials jetting.
The ability to shape components on a part-by-part basis is a good fit to medical and dental areas. Also, manufacturing layer-by-layer suits the production of complex geometries, which gives developers the go-ahead to apply weight-saving designs beyond the reach of conventional tooling, such as intricate lattice networks for supporting loads using a minimum of materials. Here, the aerospace industry is taking note.
Informatics of making
Other developments include a move to build more materials knowledge into the AM process. For example, to allow data-files sent to the production tool to communicate not just XYZ coordinates, but also information about the materials, physics and design intent – something that researchers in the US have dubbed the “informatics of making” and are now investigating thanks to an NSF grant (see – University of Wisconsin-Madison news).
“One could conceptually separate information about the geometry and the material of an artifact into functional and process-related,” co-investigator, Vadim Shapiro of the University of Wisconsin-Madison told TMR+. “In this case, it would be very attractive to generate the process-related information automatically, but of course this conceptual separation is not clean, and this is where the interesting research issues are beginning to arise.”
Materials systems for AM currently include metals, polymers and ceramics. Looking ahead, biomaterials, superconductors and new magnetic materials, high performance metal alloys, ultra-high temperature ceramic composites, metal-organic frameworks, new nano-particulates and nano-fibres are all prime candidates for analysis and development according to the SRA report.