Decades-old manufacturing process gets new life
3-D technique can cut costs of some complex parts
A 26-year-old manufacturing process is gaining traction around the world as a cheaper alternative to traditional machining.
Some experts call additive manufacturing, a process in which parts are created by building up layer after layer of material, the next industrial revolution. Others say the process will remain a niche technique.
Either way, it's growing. Additive manufacturing, or 3-D printing, is a $1.7 billion annual business and is projected to reach $3.1 billion by 2016, according to Wohlers Associates Inc., a consultant in Fort Collins, Colo.
Created and patented in 1986 by Chuck Hull, founder, of 3D Systems Corp. of Rock Hill, S.C., additive manufacturing had meager beginnings. Hull called it stereolithography and used a beam of ultraviolet light to solidify a thin layer of liquid plastic into a prescribed shape. The process is then repeated hundreds or thousands of times.
Tomlinson: More than prototyping
Three-D printing is similar to printing a computer document. Hit "print," and the "printer" adds successive layers out of material such as plastic or alloy resin to create a solid, layered object.
The layers are measured in microns - one one-thousandth of a millimeter.
The process typically has been used in prototyping parts, but new advancements in the technology are creating a stir, said Mark Tomlinson, CEO of the Society of Manufacturing Engineers in suburban Detroit.
"This is not a new technology, but it's maturing to a point where it can be utilized more efficiently than five or 10 years ago," he said. "We're really on the cusp of large manufacturers evaluating the technology as a manufacturing process rather than [to] just use for prototyping."
These advancements include the introduction of metals, allowing industries such as automotive to do more with additive manufacturing, Tomlinson said.
Burns: Process excels with complex parts.
ExOne Corp. of North Huntingdon, Pa., makes additive manufacturing tools for large industrial uses, with sales to Ford Motor Co. and Deere & Co.
Ford bought several of ExOne's $1 million-plus tools for use at the automaker's Beech Daly Technical Center in suburban Detroit, said David Burns, ExOne's president.
Burns said as parts, machines and technologies get more complex, additive manufacturing gains traction because a more complex part is cheaper to build in a 3-D printing tool than a dense, less intricate part.
That's because the process adds materials, such as steel or plastic, to make a product. Traditional machining cuts away at a block of material, and as a part gains in complexity, so must cutting machinery.
"As we continue to drive down the costs of running our machines, we're able to make more headway in volumes," Burns said.
Crescent Pattern Co. of suburban Detroit does prototyping for Ford and General Motors and uses additive manufacturing.
Crescent designs drivetrain, engine and transmission patterns and machine molds for Ford to use in additive manufacturing machines at its Beech Daly center. For GM, Crescent ships its designs and molds to ExOne for the process.
Brian Lambert, vice president at Crescent, said additive manufacturing allows for quick changes in the development process.
"A program we're working on now, the part has gone through five or six iterations," he said. "With this technology, we're able to turn around these changes in days instead of weeks and months."
A Ford spokesman wrote in an e-mail that additive manufacturing enables the automaker to cut the time to produce a prototype by 90 percent.
Burns said additive manufacturing machine volumes are 10 times higher than 30 months ago.
In March, President Obama announced a $1 billion initiative to create the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation, composed of as many as 15 institutes for manufacturing innovation in the United States.
The U.S. institutes, based on Germany's Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft research organization, will bring together industry, universities and community colleges, federal agencies and regional and state organizations to invest in industrially relevant manufacturing technologies.
The first institute will focus on additive manufacturing.
Tomlinson said he expects additive manufacturing to grow in southeast Michigan for certain parts, but that the technology's limitations will keep it from mass adoption.
"It is not suited for all parts manufacturing," he said. "It will have a place in auto, defense and medical devices, but if you need critical tolerances or strength, you still need to use materials that can't be made in an additive machine."
North Coast Technology Investors, a venture capital firm in Ann Arbor, Mich., remains interested in additive manufacturing despite an investment that didn't pan out.
North Coast invested in Solidica, an Ann Arbor company that used additive manufacturing for aluminum parts, in 2000. Despite early growth, the company's revenues took a hit in 2009 from the recession.
"We will absolutely continue to look for investments" with this technology, said Hugo Brown, a partner at North Coast. "It's been overhyped in the past, but it's made tremendous progress.
"It's a fundamental trend in manufacturing, but for venture capital, [the question is] whether it will advance in a time frame to be cost effective."
Crescent has done limited manufacturing runs using additive manufacturing for production electric vehicles - something that five years ago no one thought would have been possible, Lambert said.
He added: "I do see a future where this could eventually be used in more production" rather than prototyping.