In the not too distant past materials for additive manufacturing (AM) used to be a case of bastardising polymers and metals from other processes. Now, the likes of Carpenter and BASF produce bespoke materials for singular applications. Next on the checklist would be the consumables. In this column Guido Plicht, Metals Processing & EPAT Industry Manager E&A, Air Products looks at how the companies long-standing expertise could help to improve the additive process
We all know the potential AM has to transform large industries. Already it is making major inroads to revolutionising aerospace manufacturing, while automotive firms are actively trying to increase its usage in their operations. The benefits will be substantial. The creativity and flexibility in design compared to traditional methods is well-known and answers the growing demand for personalisation within the automotive industry.
However, there are significant issues which make many manufacturers hesitate. The additional time and money which goes into the process means traditional methods are still preferred by many – they can’t offer the same flexibility in design but they are currently faster and cheaper. This is most evident in the automotive industry, where the large number of parts involved severely limits the scope for its use. While AM may be used in the initial research and development phase, companies revert back to traditional methods to produce all but a prototype of certain parts.
The need to streamline the process if we are to make AM viable for mass production is evident. If we can’t swiftly bring about efficiencies, then making it a mainstay in larger and more intensive industries is unlikely to be possible in the coming decades. Consumers are pushing for more variety and more innovation, but as it stands the technology we have developed to achieve this just can’t cope with demand.
Despite the promise of AM, some companies will need to see a significant improvement in value or they will continue to waver. So, how do we best go about delivering this?
While many solutions are focused on the parts production itself, there is progress to be made by looking more at the individual elements which make up the process. Certainly, the machining process will need improvements, but the production of materials at earlier points in the supply chain should also be optimised to absorb some of the required improvements.
A prime example of this lies in powder production, a vital part of the AM process. At Air Products, our main link to AM is through providing the gases which create the right protective atmosphere for the production of powder. Currently, a large part of this work involves investigating ways to modify the levels and varieties of the gases included. While this research is primarily needed to ensure a higher quality powder, it brings with it new efficiencies – reducing the amount of powder needed and reducing gas consumption.
It’s this kind of tighter process control which can optimise individual processes within the AM supply chain and ease the transition to making it viable. In some ways, the industry falls into the trap of looking just at the big picture to solve this problem, rather than at individual efficiencies which could make all the difference.
A vital part of achieving these efficiencies will be a greater degree of collaboration across the whole supply chain. Without the co-operation of the other companies involved we wouldn’t be in a position to carry out research around gas modification, and similar circumstances will inevitably arise in other areas, such as heat treatment. The entire supply chain, not just those with direct links to part production, needs to work together to bring about these incremental efficiencies.
Looking at each element of the supply chain and examining how to improve it can uncover scope for substantial efficiencies and therefore pave the way for the mass adoption of AM.