The American Society of Mechanical Engineers in November hosted the Advanced Manufacturing Forum in San Diego, and there was much buzz there about 3D printers. These innovative devices offer the potential to foster major breakthroughs and innovations across manufacturing sectors, including the automotive industry.
3D printers hold the promise for low-cost, environmentally friendly, on-demand production, which are key priorities in auto manufacturing. The incredible devices make products by following instructions from a computer and stacking raw material – polymers, mainly – into layers. Whereas in the conventional design and manufacturing process CAD models are developed and then adapted to machining, 3D printers have the amazing capability to interpret a digital design file directly from CAD and create – literally grow – a finished product from plastic, metal, or other type of material.
There are several different methods for 3D printing, with fused deposition modeling, stereolithography, and laser sintering among the most common. In FDM, a type of raw material is squeezed or sprayed through a print head. Stereolithography is a binding process in which the printer sweeps a laser beam over the surface of a special type of plastic, a UV-sensitive photopolymer that hardens when exposed to UV light. Each sweep of the laser traces the outline and cross section of the printed shape in consecutive layers.
Among the many advantages of 3D printing is the capability of the system to print on demand when an object is needed. The printers can foster a zero lead-time manufacturing environment, in which companies make products when they are needed and where they are needed.
Another key benefit is customization. 3D printers will advance rapid prototyping and replace the traditional iterative, real-time approach to product design and fabrication. And the products created off of 3D printing systems are well made – in many cases, better than products generated through traditional CAD and prototyping means. That’s because 3D printers allow unlimited design freedom, precise physical replication, and expanded shape-shifting. A designer can write geometries for a 3D printer that cannot be done in a traditional design and manufacturing environment.
Amid the excitement over 3D printing, there is caution. According to the speakers in the forum in San Diego, safety and reliability standards and mandates will need to be developed and implemented for products that can be churned out on a whim. Technical education and training will likely be impacted. Legal issues pertaining to ownership, patent protection, trademarks and copyrights, and credentials for individuals using 3D manufacturing technology will need to be resolved before additive manufacturing reaches new levels and new frontiers.
Going forward, ASME will continue exploring 3D printing opportunities and challenges with industry leaders at its follow-up conference, the Advanced Design and Manufacturing Impact Forum, to be held Aug. 17-20, 2014, in Buffalo, N.Y. Further information about this conference is available from Ms. Brandy Smith, Program Manager, Emerging Technologies at ASME; SmithB@asme.org.
In another activity connected to 3D printing, ASME has created an additive manufacturing online community to bring together individuals interested in exploring the design and manufacturing implications of 3D printing of polymers, metals, and other advanced materials. Interested participants are invited to visit this site.
Indeed, 3D printing is a technology that can change the landscape in product fabrication and manufacturing. Today, the devices are used at dental labs to make custom crowns in less than one hour. NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center has used a 3D printer to fabricate a new type of fuel injector. The auto industry could be the next frontier. Applications exist for the design and fabrication of vehicle components and assemblies, from body panels to engine blocks. The future for 3D printing is exciting.
Thomas Loughlin is Executive Director for the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.