Will Additive Manufacturing Change Manufacturing?

AM could very well become the most diverse, flexible, and accessible manufacturing technology ever.

By Terry Wohlers, President, Wohlers Associates

The "Wohlers" column is authored by Terry Wohlers for Time Compression.
This column was published in the May/June 2011 issue.

Additive manufacturing (AM) was once viewed as a technology used almost exclusively for making models, prototypes, and patterns. Most people did not anticipate that it would one day be used for making end-use products or parts. Yet given what I am seeing, I believe that AM will eventually have a greater breadth of impact on the production of products than any manufacturing technology in recent history. Think this is an exaggeration? Consider the following:

Aircraft parts. For years, Boeing has used AM, specifically laser sintering (LS), to produce highly complex environmental control ducting for its military jets. Today, it is also producing them for the 787 commercial aircraft. The plastic ducting has substantially reduced inventory, labor, assembly lines, weight, maintenance, and mountains of certification paperwork. “More than 20,000 of them are currently flying without a single failure,” said Chris Glock of On Demand Manufacturing, a former Boeing company.

Parts for UAVs. The development of parts for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) has become a test bed for additive manufacturing. Companies are using the technology to create new wing designs with elaborate lattice structures, as well as other types of parts, because they are smaller and the regulatory requirements are not quite as difficult as they are with large-scale military and commercial aircraft.

Specialty automobiles. Fifty AM parts were used in the Abruzzi car from Panoz Auto Development Co., initially for a photo shoot. The company found that many of the interior and exterior parts were good enough for the final product, so they used them in the entire production run of 81 cars. Nine of the AM parts were used in the instrument panel, while others were used in the center console and armrests. Most of the interior parts were covered in leather or another material. 928 Motorsports LLC, an after-market parts company, is using AM to manufacture intake runners for the Porsche 928, which went out of production in 1995. The company is manufacturing the part on demand in carbon-filled nylon 12 for the 900-hp engine. The nylon part weighs 1.4 kg (3.1 lb) versus 3.6 kg (7.9 lb) for the aluminum version.

Manufacturing tools. A number of manufacturing companies are using AM to make jigs, fixtures, alignment and drill guides, gauges, and other manufacturing and assembly tools. Thogus Products, a custom injection molder located outside of Cleveland, OH, uses FDM from Stratasys extensively for these types of parts in its 76,000-ft2 manufacturing facility. According to Matt Hlavin, the company’s CEO, Thogus saves $150,000 a year in factory automation using FDM to build manufacturing tools.

Orthopedic implants. An estimated 30,000 orthopedic implants have been produced by electron beam melting (EBM) worldwide, mostly in Europe. About half have been implanted into patients. A few of the titanium alloy (Ti-6Al-4V) implants are custom, but most are standard products, such as acetabular cups for hip joints. Orthopedic device manufacturers in Europe received CE certification in 2007 and have been manufacturing artificial hips by EBM since then. The FDA gave the green light to manufacture certain orthopedic implant products by EBM in the U.S. in February 2011.

Dental restorations. European dental labs are using processes, such as direct metal laser sintering (DMLS) from EOS, to produce copings for crowns and bridges. A coping is the main structure of a crown or bridge that is custom-made to fit the patient. Dental technicians typically coat the copings in porcelain to match the color of the patient’s teeth. These technicians can produce about eight to 10 crowns per day using traditional techniques. With a machine, such as an EOSINT M 280 from EOS, a dental lab can produce about 400 copings in 20 hours. Data for the copings must be prepared using special software by a skilled technician and the copings must be removed from the build plate and finished.

Fashion products. Additive manufacturing is having an impact on the fashion industry. High-heeled shoes have been designed, manufactured, and worn by models. For example, the eye-catching Melonia Shoe, designed by Naim Josefi and Souzan Youssouf, were featured at the Stockholm Fashion Show in February 2010. Meanwhile, special clothing garments, even jackets and dresses, have been produced by laser sintering and worn in fashion shows, such as a recent event in Paris.

The examples discussed thus far are targeted at professionals. A consumer market for products by additive manufacturing is also developing. Some are high-end products that come with high-end prices, such as thousands of dollars. Other products can be purchased for under $100—even less than $10.

Furniture. An example of a high-end consumer product is the beautiful HolyGhost chair by designer Lionel Dean of FutureFactories. The chair is impressive and it can be yours for a mere $10,300 for the nylon version and $13,200 for the metal-plated version. Less expensive products are available, such as the lighting designs from i.materialise and .MGX by Materialise. Some of the designs are stunning and are available for a few hundred dollars.

Jewelry. Countless jewelry pieces have been designed and produced by additive manufacturing. An example is the Icon-branded titanium pendant from Lionel Design, which benefits from the ease at which AM produces highly-convoluted shapes and features. The intricate Icon product, which measures about 62 mm (2.4 in.) in length, is polished to an almost mirror-like finish using a special technique. The Icon pendants are priced at around $515.

Protective covers for phones. A number of covers for smart phones have been designed and produced by AM. An example is the Double Mesh product designed by Janne Kyttanen of Freedom of Creation for Freshfiber. Apple purchased the exclusive rights of this particular design and offers it at its on-line store for about $54.

Video game characters: In December 2007, FigurePrints brought World of Warcraft (WoW) characters to life through its additive manufacturing service. At figureprints.com, players can order a statue for $130 or bust for $70 of their WoW character. The product is printed in full color using a 3D printer from Z Corp. and infiltrated with resin to strengthen the delicate features. The product is then mounted, covered in a glass dome, and shipped. The company recently introduced the manufacture of Xbox LIVE avatars for $50.

Custom dolls. A company named That’s My Face can put your face on a doll or action figure or frame it for display. Customers upload one or two .jpg images of a face and the company does the rest. That’s My Face uses a color 3D printer from Z Corp. to produce the likeness of you or someone else. Prices are from $29 for a small product to $129 for a 12-in. action figure.

The market potential for products made by additive manufacturing is immeasurable. The preverbal tip of the iceberg is emerging. What we do not know is the enormity of the iceberg below the surface. Based on what I’m seeing, hearing, and expecting, it could be very large. In effect, AM could very well become the most diverse, flexible, and accessible manufacturing technology ever. TC