End-user perspectives on the future of 3D printing
A recent aerospace-led event presented some of the current thinking of European companies on the subject of 3D printing.
Dr Tommaso Ghidini, Head of Materials Technology Section at the European Space Agency discussed its role in the coordination of European industry in respect of 3D printing and outlined some of the "dreams" of the agency to use the technology to build a moon-base. Dr Ghidini cautioned however that the technology "should not be seen as a global solution", a sentiment echoed at various points throughout the 2-day conference. Applications of the technology must be carefully chosen.
Materials supply chain
The issue of the materials supply chain, particularly regarding metal powders, for 3D printing was discussed at length with Lorenzo Lorenzi, Advanced Manufacturing Leader, GE Oil & Gas stating "powder suppliers could be a bottleneck in the supply chain" and according to Dan Johns, Chief Technologist, GKN Aerospace end-users "can't buy a ton of powder in one single order".
IDTechEx research recently published 3D Printing Materials 2014-2025: Status, Opportunities, Market Forecasts and placed the current 3D printing metal powders market at less than 30 tons/year and in-depth interviews with suppliers revealed difficulties in gaining economies of scale which has fuelled speculation of future consolidation in the field.
According to Simon Bradley, VP, EADS and Chair of the conference, metal powder prices are expected to come down significantly. Whilst IDTechEx also expect prices to come down in the long-term, metal powder suppliers have indicated that their products, previously largely used for coating applications not requiring highly specified characteristics, are having to be re-invented in terms of working practice and quality - with some even stating that they expect to be putting the prices of their metal powders up in the not too distant future as manufacturing costs increase.
Issues relating to the design aspects of 3D printing were also discussed, specifically in relation to the limitations of the software currently available and the lack of experts able to truly exploit the full capabilities offered by the technology, although Ralf Schwenger, R&D Director, Head Sports noted it is a "fallacy that additive manufacturing (3D printing) offers design freedom".
Another theme was the use of 3D printing for production part manufacture, and whilst the aerospace sector were clearly keen on the opportunities to reduce both material waste and lighten the craft (saving fuel costs), there was general agreement that 3D printing of any flight critical component was some way off.
Jessica Middlemiss, Senior Materials Engineer, Dyson stated on the other hand that for a company producing 7M products per year, each with an average of 135 components, "additive manufacturing is not possible". 3D Printing is not a major threat to traditional manufacturing.
One area where a possible opportunity exists outside of the very high-value, low-volume, manufacturing scenario was noted by Ralf Schwenger, who explained that some of its rackets are more than 10 years old and they can foresee what is essentially a digital inventory scenario where replacement parts for old products might be printed to order, rather than stored. He also however noted that 3D printing represents a branding problem for the company, who also have concerns regarding future difficulty obtaining patents in the face of an open-source product development future.
One disappointment of the conference was the lack of future vision on display. Many end-users, when probed on future developments of the technology, stated that they look to the printer manufacturers to answer such questions. To place this in context, Lockheed-Martin have partnered with US-based Sciaky to develop large format electron beam melting 3D printers whilst Boeing are seeking to combine printed electronics with 3D printing. Further, Disney research, in collaboration with Autodesk, are working hard towards 3D Printing functional optics. US industry appears to be far more pro-active when it comes to the development of the technology, driving technology advancement rather than waiting to see what happens.
To be fair, BAE Systems presented a novel method of stress relief during metal 3D printing which reduces warpage however, whilst dealing with the here-and-now problems is essential, the reins need to be more firmly clasped on this side of the Atlantic if Europe is not to be left playing second fiddle.
The "dreams" of the European Space Agency to 3D print a moon-base are ambitious, but in the meantime, NASA is actively testing 3D printed critical rocket engine components, and working with US-based Tethers towards 3D printing mile-long structures in space. It is putting its money where its mouth is.
According to Dr Ghidini, attempts on the part of the European Space Agency to engage with NASA on 3D Printing have so far failed - NASA apparently intends to go it alone, implying that it sees little added value in working with the Europeans on 3D Printing development for space applications. Sadly, it is probably right.
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Top image: European Space Agency