We Need To Stop Equating Disruption With Displacement: Where Additive Fits Into Manufacturing

Raging discussions on the “technologies of the future” focus on Industry 4.0 and all the interconnected, advanced capabilities under this broad umbrella that are set to disrupt workflows. Disruption: it’s a term often bandied about as nascent technologies take their place as some kind of wunderkind manufacturing solutions. Too often this is spoken of interchangeably with the idea of displacement, but that’s a mistake. The real power of the latest technology suites, including additive manufacturing, is alongside existing production solutions.

When we talk about traditional manufacturing we usually mean either subtractive processes that remove material to create a component or casting or molding, where a mold is filled with material to make a part or product. Advances in technologies like CNC and waterjetting have brought digital precision to these subtractive techniques, enhancing accuracies and speeding workflow. Injection molding, for its part, remains a mainstay in mass production as huge quantities of parts can be made incredibly quickly. By comparison, additive manufacturing is slower, often less accurate and requires significant initial investment for new adopters. So why should additive take over manufacturing?

It shouldn’t. Disruption is changing workflows -- but that doesn’t have to mean reinventing the wheel.

Additive manufacturing, or 3-D printing, is a manufacturing solution. Like any other manufacturing technology, though, it is not -- and never will be -- a one-size-fits-all solution. The importance of ‘the right tool for the right job’ cannot be overstated, as the old adage holds true even as today’s toolboxes expand exponentially.

So where does additive fit into manufacturing? Whether working with metals or plastics, for one-off specialty goods, mass production or mass customization, solutions are being found in almost every industry to put the unique benefits of 3-D printing to use.

Serial production, while a rising trend, is years from being normalized in industry. Today, some of the biggest adoption of 3-D printing in manufacturing is in seemingly small use cases, such as custom tooling and jigs and fixtures for production lines. These applications often see desktop 3-D printers enabling on-site tool making, as manufacturing usage isn’t limited to the large industrial systems. Both desktop and industrial systems are put to use in the creation of spare parts, as digital inventory systems begin to impact the global supply chain.

It takes a lot to get this engine -- and this plane -- together.

Aerospace applications are perhaps, as the highest-flying, also the highest-profile; showcase pieces like GE’s LEAP engine fuel nozzle have served for years as the poster children for what additive manufacturing can do. Proving that the technology is capable of keeping airplanes flying is all well and good, but the bulk of that plane was still made using traditional manufacturing technologies.

Additive manufacturing proved to be the right tool for the LEAP fuel nozzle job because of its unique benefits of part consolidation, complex geometries and lightweighting. The team had tried to cast the part but failed -- eight times. Once redesigned for 3-D printing, the part quickly succeeded -- as a one-piece unit rather than a 20-part assembly, and weighing 25% less than the original while offering five times the durability. To date, more than 30,000 of these nozzles have been 3-D printed for use in LEAP engines. These statistics are impressive, but the little fuel nozzle is only one component of a full airplane. Airplanes, as it happens, are actually quite large. We need to look past the fuel nozzles to see the plane as a whole. The entire aircraft is something of a symphony of manufacturing technologies: 3-D printed, welded, cast, cut, stamped, milled and molded into a cohesive whole ready to wing passengers through the air.

Did the 3-D printing of one component disrupt the way the engine was made? Yes. Did it displace all the other technologies in use? No.

The automotive industry is another strong market for additive manufacturing, as 3-D printed replacement parts and custom retrofits and even fully 3-D printed car bodies are being made today. While 3-D printed airless tires have also made a conceptual debut, they’re nowhere near ready for mass market, keeping good old rubber tires with traditional rims firmly on the ground for the next generations of automobile. The same goes for engines, mirrors and, indeed, most elements of most cars. Big-name manufacturers including Daimler, Ford, GM and Volkswagen have adopted 3-D printing into their operations -- enhancing, not replacing, their production lines.

Additive manufacturing is a disruptive technology, almost by name: it adds. The real disruption is not in displacing already functional solutions but in adding a new dimension to manufacturing.

Read the full article in Forbes.