As 3D printing makes an entrance into most industries today within the US and around the rest of the world too, we see this versatile and extremely progressive technology offering many different benefits. Whether being used in the medical or veterinary fields for items like protheses and implants, industries like aerospace where rockets now bear 3D printed parts, or architecture where prototypes are quickly created and refined over and over, researchers, engineers, and designers are able to create new parts and objects that were not previously possible.
Industries such as construction are embracing 3D printing in myriad ways too, along with other subcategories such as metalworking. While overall, the construction and building industry may be using 3D printing expansively, for a niche like metalworking (namely, in steel), prototyping is where it’s at—for now. Masters students at MIT, Aline Blanche Grynbaum Ingberman and Sittipat Assavaniwej, recently published a thesis centered around supply chain management. In ‘3D Printing’s Impact on the Metalworking Industry,’ the authors explore current trends in use of the technology, along with current and project obstacles.
Metalworking has of course seen many transformations throughout the ages, but the need for raw material and having it close by has not changed:
“In most cases, one will find steel manufacturers closer to the raw materials than to the consumers. For steel, the primary raw material is iron ore, which is now produced at several sites around the world. Close proximity to suppliers not only ensures a reliable source, but also significantly reduces time and transportation costs,” state the researchers in their paper.
Along with supply management, there are challenges in the workforce as so much of the younger generation endeavors to gain four-year degrees, eschewing trade professions such as metalworking—much of which may be considered old fashioned careers. As time progresses, this may change as the use of materials and technology become more updated due to the use of additive processes rather than subtractive ones.
The authors collected their data by visiting sites using CNC production processes and 3D printing, interviewing owners, operators, and managers, and performing other research such as the use of a detailed survey that yielded 133 responses. In line with the main topic for their study, the researchers focused on both small and larger businesses, questioning the potential for comprehensive 3D printing practices in the future:
“For large business, a surprising 29% of respondents say that, at some point, they are considering replacing 100% of the production process with AM. For small business, 9% says that too,” stated the authors in their paper. “Given the high initial investment cost, one possible explanation for this are businesses that were born dependent of 3DP. One example is a company that was visited for the project, that manufactures 3D printed prosthesis for hips and knees. Since the beginning, their process was 100% based on AM.”
While the researchers predict prototyping will still be the main use for 3D printing in metalworking processes over the next three to five years, they examined the benefits for its use within the industry overall:
- Shorter value chain
- Less material waste
- Latitude in designing and making changes quickly
- Savings on the bottom line
“With AM you can spread out the load and lighten the part. For example, the wing’s leading-edge formers can be redesigned to be wider to accomplish stability while weighing less,” said Marvin Fiebig, owner of PTooling.
“We’re not going to blow the doors off standard machines–I wouldn’t want to do that–but if we can give a customer a newly designed component that meets their needs in four weeks instead of 20, they will probably opt for using the new technology. Basically, we can make a part that is 30 percent lighter, 50 percent stronger, produce it faster, and material costs will be cheaper because we’re not machining away the biggest portion of a material block.”
And while it is possible that 3D printing may eventually eclipse CNC processes, there are still hurdles such as lack of necessary variety in metals, cost of materials, and some issues with quality, post-processing procedures, and the necessary means for fabricating larger parts.
“3D printing is a promising emergent technology. Like most new technologies, 3D printing still needs to evolve before it can be widely adopted by the metal working industry. While it is already viewed as a viable and useful technology, AM still has barriers to overcome,” concluded the authors. “Currently, the main barriers for most business are the high initial investment required and the limitation of materials available for 3DP. Limited printable size also is a main concern regarding AM adoption, independent of the industry segment and business size.”
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