Additive Mass Production – AMP

“Production, the final frontier […] to boldly go where no digital manufacturing capability has gone before”. If there were a sci-fi series on the evolution of 3D printing, the initial introduction could sound something like this, borrowed right out of Star Trek (just like the replicator concept that 3D printers will one day replicate). Production, intended as batch, large match, serial, mass-customized, and eventually digital mass production is the ultimate goal of any manufacturing technology, and 3D printing (or additive manufacturing) is of course no different.

We know that today, and for the foreseeable future, 3D printing will be another production tool to complement well-established formative and subtractive processes but we at 3dpbm are convinced that eventually (very far in into the future) all manufacturing will be done additively. So where do we stand now? More or less the same as our space program versus Star Trek’s: it’s a great time to be in the space industry, there is lots of enthusiasm and we are making great progress in bringing costs down (thanks primarily to additive manufacturing and to Elon Musk), but our space industry is only an infinitesimally small fraction of what we can imagine it to be.

With AM for direct production, it’s more or less the same: there is incredible enthusiasm, we are making incredible progress but our production capabilities are only an infinitesimally small fraction of what they could eventually be and a tiny fraction of traditional manufacturing, which we intend as manually customized, automated formative and digital subtractive) manufacturing. One of the reasons we think that AM can one day replace all these processes is because AM is all of these combined into one. AM can be used for mass customization, production automation and digital manufacturing. The goal of the companies developing AM processes and workflows is to do just that.

That’s not to say that AM for production isn’t already underway. It is. Especially in polymer AM (3dpbm Research’s upcoming major study on this key segment of AM will demonstrate this very fact). Companies are producing millions of parts per year using all major AM processes: thermoplastic material extrusion (with farms of hundreds of machines), stereolithography (with larger and faster high-speed machines using durable materials) and polymer powder bed fusion (either by optimizing the SLS workflow or by accelerating production rates via the newest thermal PBF processes such as MJF, SAF and HSS). When it comes to polymer AM, it is now more of a matter of finalizing, accelerating and optimizing all workflows, even beyond powder management and post-processing and into accelerated ways to get final 3D printed products into the hands of customers. This is what AM Flow is focusing on, the only company to do so effectively at this time, and pretty much every high-throughput polymer AM service provider in the world could benefit from the product handling capabilities enabled by its hardware and software systems.

Another key area of development is LFAM, which can now be used to produce single final parts and products but extremely large single parts and products that would be difficult to produce using standard processes. Tools (such as molds, jigs or fixtures) are a key example: there objects are intended as a means for producing other parts but they are also final and usable parts in and of themselves.

While polymer AM production of millions of parts is underway, the same cannot be said of the metal AM, where very little final part production is taking place. For sure some very interesting things are happening in the space industry, but we are still talking about single parts. Commercial aviation metal AM part production today is very much limited to GE’s newest engines and to some applications in the general aviation segment, as well as defense and drone manufacturing. That’s not going to change much anytime soon as the requirements for standardization and safety regulations will necessarily extend the time to market (and costs) of any newly developed AM part. That said, companies like Burloak, Sintavia, Morf3D, BEAMIT, Premium Aerotech and several others are making great efforts to accelerate this transition. Something very similar is also taking place in the Energy industry, both for power generation and upstream/downstream resource

Mass adoption of metal AM in automotive is not yet happening. That’s what companies like Desktop Metal, HP and, to a lesser extent, GE hope to accomplish with their metal binder jetting systems. Desktop Metal is the company with most machines already on the market (especially those produced by the recently acquired ExOne but also its own), however, HP will finally launch its metal binder jetting system this Q3 and begin to aggressively develop that market. Whether these processes will succeed in penetrating the automotive market remains to be seen.

To conclude, we have grown accustomed to using the acronym AM to indicate additive manufacturing. In the past companies like Airbus have also used ALM (additive layer manufacturing). As additive manufacturing evolves into a technology used in direct, digital production of large series of parts, rather than one-offs, short batches, prototypes and tools, we now need a new acronym that can more immediately represent this evolutionary process: AMP, additive mass production, could be that acronym.

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