In early June, I had the opportunity to pay a quick visit to Rapid 2013 at the convention center in Pittsburgh, Pa. Presented by the Society of Manufacturing Engineers (SME), Rapid covered a wide range of applications of this “new” and potentially ground-breaking technology, additive manufacturing (AM). Ed Morris, the director of NAMII (National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute), said that the technology is poised to be this generation’s “moon-shot moment — absolutely, without question.”
As many of us are aware, the technology began as a tool for rapid prototyping. The part would often be made from a plastic material and used to fashion a functional part from the design material. Today, this initial step has been eliminated in many cases because powdered metal (PM) is being used to directly produce functional parts. That puts AM technology squarely in our editorial coverage of PM, casting, heat treating and metallurgy.
In fact, Industrial Heating has been covering this innovation for quite some time. There have been numerous mentions in editorials and special new-technology articles as well as contributed articles. One example is a January 2012 article entitled, “Additive Manufacturing Enables Innovative Shock-Wave Control in Supersonic Turbine Blades.” Aerospace is just one of the technology areas of interest for AM technology. Two of our IH magEzine newsletters this year have covered stories about Pratt & Whitney’s investment in an AM center and GE Aerospace acquiring two AM companies. If aerospace (with its long approval process) is interested, the potential is there for applications in many other industries.
The attendance levels at Rapid 2013 certainly indicate interest. This year’s 2,700 attendees almost doubled 2012. Some of the industries represented at Rapid 2013 included aerospace as well as medical, automotive and almost any other field you can think of. Terms such as metal laser sintering (MLS), direct metal laser sintering (DMLS) and selective laser melting (SLM) were commonplace. While prototyping is still a focus, direct manufacturing of a wide range of parts and materials, including engineering-grade ceramic materials, is becoming more typical.
Our sister publication, FORGE, also covered the topic in an August 2012 article. FORGE Editor, Dean Peters, discussed AM in his April 2013 editorial, harkening back to the early days of stereolithography (SLA). This background and his thoughts about AM’s potential to impact our industry are worth a read. You can find them at www.forgemag.com/AM.
Interestingly, SLA is on the list of technologies covered at Rapid 2013. A sampling of other technologies included direct metal deposition, fused deposition modeling, elective laser sintering, electron beam manufacturing and the others mentioned previously (MLS, DMLS and SLM). These technologies utilize ceramics, composites, epoxies, metals and plastics.
What is the potential of this technology, and how will it impact our industry? In 2012, 3-D printing grew almost 29% to $2.2 billion from $1.7 billion in 2011 according to research by Wohlers Associates in Colorado. They predict that the 3-D printing market will approach $6 billion worldwide by 2017 and almost $11 billion by 2021. While much progress has been made and the technology is growing, David Demyan from Mine Safety Appliances Inc. says, “The real challenge – the holy grail – is coming out with a perfect part.” In his opinion, this will take at least 10 more years. Currently, 75% of the parts produced by 3-D printer manufacturer ExOne Co. require additional processing such as heat treating and surface finishing.
How AM will ultimately affect our industry is a crystal-ball-gazing exercise. Since I have previously revealed that I have no such soothsaying abilities, we can only speculate, but AM’s impact is already being felt. Many of us have had special (one-off or prototype) parts made this way or at least considered it. As AM equipment becomes more cost-effective and available, more of this type of activity will take place. If more AM parts are made that require heat treating, these manufacturers will need to establish a relationship with heat treaters. Ultimately, their goal appears to be to make parts not requiring post processing such as heat treating. This, however, appears to be more than a decade away.
The IH magEzine recently carried stories of a “printed” gun and a soon-to-be printed car. As more and more mainstream parts are made with this technology, the potential (and the limitations) will become more obvious. For now, we agree with Peters that “AM is more opportunity than threat” to the thermal-processing community. We will continue to report on advances, as we see them, to keep you informed. Stay tuned! IH