A little girl named Emma was born as a normal child. But around her first birthday, her parents and doctors noticed that she didn’t have the strength to lift her arms. This had a tremendous impact on her life. She couldn’t pick things up properly. She couldn’t eat or play with her friends the way children normally would.
The doctors first tried addressing the problem by building an apparatus more or less made of metal to help Emma lift the arms. But the components were too heavy and didn’t fit her body properly.
So, engineers from Stratasys helped build an apparatus from plastic components. Together with the doctors, they optimized the device until it fit Emma well. This was the first time Emma could move her arms easily, and she started playing and enjoying her life.
Additive manufacturing literally changed Emma’s world. It’s also going to change the way products are designed and manufactured. It will massively disrupt the entire product lifecycle, all the way from design, to manufacturing and the distribution of products. Additive manufacturing had a massive impact on the life of this little girl, and it will profoundly change the life of engineers who design, analyze and manufacture products. It completely alters the traditional way of making products.
This is the reason why additive manufacturing (also known as 3D printing) is categorized as a disruptive technology; they have an exponential impact on performance, product weight, quality and distribution. And this is also the reason why there’s this massive interest on additive manufacturing in the industry. Believe me, it’s not because we can suddenly print a toy or a personalized gift or a spare part for our lawn mower. It’s because this technology is going to revolutionize how products are designed, engineered, manufactured and distributed. Its impact on the entire product lifecycle worries CEOs and business managers every day.
I’ll give a few examples to help you understand what this means, but you probably want a brief, simple description of what additive manufacturing is all about. Additive manufacturing refers to a process by which 3D digital design data is used to build up a component layer by layer, depositing material (metal or plastic) to create a complete part or product. It sounds so simple.
Rocket engine. Here’s an example of time and innovation to market. The rocket engine principle design has remained unchanged for decades. The combustion chamber is made of two materials: a copper core with tiny channels to press liquid hydrogen through that cools down the chamber, and an outer coating process called electro plating which adds stress resistant, strong alloys to prevent bursting. The process of manufacturing this chamber is complex and can take up to six months with no way for the engineer to alter the design once in process.
Siemens PLM is currently working with companies like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic. Both bought a hybrid machine from DMG; that machine will eventually let them build the combustion chamber with a dual metal powder feeder in one set-up in a few days or weeks rather than months. This will change an entire industry and will elevate time to innovation to another level.
Are companies there yet? No – but they will be. It’s just a matter of time. This process allows for innovation in much shorter cycles than today. It will reduce costs and allow the introduction of different materials. It will give them control over the entire process by insourcing this disruptive technology.
Printed car. Another additive manufacturing example is Local Motors with the Printed Car exhibited at the 2014 International Manufacturing Technology Show in Chicago. I visited the company’s new “micro factory” in Kentucky a few months ago. The company business model is to build approximately 2,000 cars per year in a micro factory. Customers can select and order their personalized car and more or less drive away in it the next day. The chassis is printed from carbon fiber on a Big Additive Manufacturing machine. You think this sounds crazy? This is an entirely new process technology and, business-wise, it will eventually impact major automotive players.
Space ratchet wrench. Think of the Made in Space ratchet wrench, a symbol of a new business model. In December 2014, the International Space Station’s 3D printer completed the first phase of a NASA technology demonstration by printing a tool with a design file transmitted from the ground to the printer. The tool was a ratchet wrench, which validated their process for printing on-demand. In less than one week, the ratchet was designed, approved by safety and other NASA reviewers and the file was sent to space where the printer made the wrench in a few hours.
This concludes part one in our three-part additive manufacturing series. In part two, Andreas Saar discusses why companies are looking to include additive manufacturing in their business plans and examples of companies already manufacturing products with this process. Stay tuned.
Tell us: What is the most interesting additive manufacturing story that you have seen or read about?
About the author Andreas Saar is vice president of manufacturing engineering software for Siemens PLM Software, a business unit of the Siemens Industry Automation Division. He and his team are responsible for developing applications and solutions, primarily on the NX platform, to deliver world-class software for part manufacturing, manufacturing planning of single and mass product production, machine tool simulation and shop floor data management. Andreas has been with Siemens PLM Software since 1984, holding a number of positions in product development, product management, technical support and sales. Andreas has been in the manufacturing software business for more than 28 years. He received his diploma in mechanical engineering and business from The Technical University of Darmstadt/Germany (TUD) in 1982. He is currently based in Siemens PLM Software’s Cypress, California office.