d2Step into your time machines and travel a decade into the future. We are now situated somewhere in the middle of the year 2025. The face of manufacturing has changed drastically from the techniques used back in 2015. Assembly lines have not been replaced and are still an integral part of manufacturing, but instead of being powered by humans, they now consist of a series of robots and 3D printers working in unison to churn out products made up of a variety of materials, from plastics to metals to new exotic composites.

In our predicted example above, manufacturers would save time and money with these new methods, passing on these savings to the consumer, making the worldwide economy much more efficient. Before we get to this point of mass additive manufacturing, there are still a few hurdles which need to be overcome. Unlike current manufacturing techniques, such as injection molding, products which are created via the bonding of plastics or the sintering of metal powders can have incredibly diverse microstructures when compared to one another. A metal bracket printed on Machine A, may look quite a bit different than the same exact bracket printed on Machine B, at least when one examines the part under magnification. These varying microstructures can equate to varying performances from one part to another, which certainly could be a major problem within many industries.

d5

For example, if an engine bracket on a future Airbus commercial airliner were printed on one machine and worked perfectly, a second machine could very well produce a part which is inferior in terms of strength, doesn’t hold up to temperature change as well, or crumbles when introduced to vibration, making it dangerous for use within any commercial aircraft. How do we overcome these shortfalls? The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has a plan.

This weekend, DARPA announced a new initiative under their Open Manufacturing program, which seeks to improve the understanding of the various materials and processes involved in additive manufacturing as well as other new manufacturing techniques. The organization points out, that in order for 3D printing to become a mainstream form of manufacturing of complex military related components — for example aircraft wings — shortcomings involving a lack of understanding related to ‘subtle differences in manufacturing methods on the properties and capabilities of resulting materials,’ need to be overcome.

Two parts, printed with same material, under a microscope.

Two parts, printed with same material, under a 100X magnification

“The Open Manufacturing program is fundamentally about capturing and understanding the physics and process parameters of additive and other novel production concepts, so we can rapidly predict with high confidence how the finished part will perform,” said Mick Maher, program manager in DARPA’s Defense Sciences Office. “The reliability and run-to-run variability of new manufacturing techniques are always uncertain at first, and as a result we qualify these materials and processes using a blunt and repetitive ‘test and retest’ approach that is inevitably expensive and time-consuming, ultimately undermining incentives for innovation.”

So what is DARPA doing to overcome these issues and ‘achieve enhanced manufacturing control’? They are investigating new rapid qualification technologies which they hope will change the way companies qualify 3D printed parts as well as parts produced with other new innovative techniques. They have set up two new Manufacturing Demonstration Facilities (MDFs). The first facility is located at Penn State University and focuses solely on metal additive manufacturing, while the other is at the Army Research Laboratory and focuses on bonded composite materials.

The Penn State facility will concentrate their efforts on two main areas. The first is Rapid Low Cost Additive Manufacturing (RLCAM), where they utilize physics-based modelling to predict the performance of materials during the direct metal laser sintering of a nickel-based metal alloy. The second area is related to DARPA’s efforts surrounding Titanium Fabrication (tiFAB), where they will use physics and data models to determine which parameters have an effect on larger additively manufactured structures such as wings for aircraft, etc.

Companies can not afford to test each and every component coming off of a 3D printer. Instead they should be able to test just a handful of products from a particular production run and then know that those sample products are representative of the entire production run. This is why DARPA’s Open Manufacturing program is so important to the future of additive manufacturing, as a thorough understanding of the processes and materials can save companies a tremendous amount of time and money. The ultimate goal of these new Manufacturing Demonstration Facilities are to d3create repositories of references where companies and individuals can access a trove of process and material models.

“Historically, U.S. military advantages were supplied by breakthroughs in materials and manufacturing,” Maher said. “More recently, the risks that come along with new manufacturing have caused a lack of confidence that has stifled adoption. Through the Open Manufacturing program, DARPA is empowering the advanced manufacturing community by providing the knowledge, control, and confidence to use new technology.”

These initiatives by DARPA could have a major impact on the rate of adoption within the manufacturing industry, especially those areas which focus on aerospace and the production of military components. With an organization which has the reach and power that DARPA does in leading these efforts, the mainstream adoption of additive manufacturing may happen sooner than some of us may have imagined.

Let’s hear your thoughts on DARPA’s Open Manufacturing program in the DARPA 3D Printing Best Practices forum thread on 3DPB.com.

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