While additive manufacturing (AM) is being incorporated throughout many industry sectors, including aerospace, automotive, electronics, medical and energy, to help with product development and production manufacturing, the full manufacturing potential is still yet to be harnessed.
The general discussion around additive is the ability to produce highly complex end-use parts, but the benefits AM has to offer are much more comprehensive. Yes, new, complex, high-performance parts are possible. But AM also provides the ability to optimize and develop advanced techniques for current processes, such as investment casting, injection molding, and precision machining. It lets users create optimized parts with added benefits that traditional manufacturing alone struggles to provide. This technology removes many of the design constraints and compromises imposed by traditional manufacturing alone and lets companies extend their capability well beyond current techniques to achieve higher ROI and more value to customers.
As AM continues to proliferate throughout manufacturing, production manufacturers need to examine how to integrate AM into existing manufacturing operations such that companies can support the demand. By combining the capabilities of 3D technologies that allow for the creation of a part from scratch with the finishing capabilities of traditional manufacturing, there are tremendous opportunities to integrate and automate the entire production process into high-efficiency production cells. 3D tech allows for concepts like modular manufacturing, creating solutions using standardized fixtures, workholding and interface controls, seamlessly combining traditional and 3D technologies to complement each other and achieve exponential benefits.
To achieve this seamless combination, manufacturers need to approach integration at the source of the technologies. True production integration requires the manufacturer to define the needs of its operations and work with integrators to design, develop, and execute systems that deliver the speed, flexibility, quality, and reliability needed to meet customer requirements. This integration starts with the understanding that AM does not replace traditional manufacturing but becomes another tool in the toolbox–-one that is created for a specific purpose, having specific strengths to contribute. By understanding and leveraging that approach, a company can build an integrated solution that draws on the strength of each component and delivers a solution that is greater than the sum of its parts.
These integrated cells, a combination of additive and traditional manufacturing technologies, provide the manufacturer with unparalleled capabilities not previously achievable. A good example is the manufacturing of high-performance injection molds. AM technologies are employed to create highly complex conformal cooling channels, which traditional manufacturing is incapable of producing. However, tight-tolerance and mirror-like surface finish requirements require the die to be post-processed with traditional manufacturing.
Both of these technologies contribute to the enhanced product, but there is more to the integrated solution. Once the conformal cooling die is built within the 3D printer, it must be transferred to the machining center and subsequently finished.
True integration between these processes can be achieved through universal fixtures and locating features built into the part during the printing process—minimizing and even eliminating the need for transfer fixtures and the potential of introducing error and degradation of tolerances. The result is a mold that neither traditional nor AM can produce alone—that creates solutions with unmatched capability and performance.
The next generation of production manufacturing requires the use of AM and will rely heavily on the integration across all aspects of the manufacturing process. Deploying full-system integration will ensure that today’s manufacturers retain and enhance their competitive advantages.