Will Additive Manufacturing Replace Traditional Manufacturing?
(The short answer: sometimes.)
Additive manufacturing is everywhere. From Aerospace engineers to your neighbor’s kid, 3D printing is becoming more commonplace not only in homes but across the world’s largest industries. The uses and advancements within additive (AM) are growing at a rapid pace, becoming a viable option for more and more manufacturing challenges, both new and old. In many cases, this process makes more sense than traditional methods.
But this begs the question: Will additive (AM) replace traditional manufacturing?
What Is Additive Manufacturing?
Additive Manufacturing is an industrial form of 3D printing. In this process, a solid, three-dimensional object manufactured from a digital CAD file through a layer-by-layer deposition process where parts are added to create the final object, rather than the traditional manufacturing method of subtracting it from a solid block of material. While this technology has been present in the industry for more than 25 years, rapid advancements in technology have expanded their use across numerous industries for more applications than when it was introduced. Originally, additive manufacturing was primarily used for quick casts and rapid prototyping for concept modeling. Today it’s used across most industries, including aerospace, and medical as a tool for designing, testing, tooling and production. With the addition of metal powders, additive can also produce high-performance parts from aluminum, titanium, steel, and nickel alloys with complex geometries for mission critical parts. Additive manufacturing has integrated numerous manufacturing techniques such as powder bed fusion, directed energy deposition, and material extrusion, to develop an extensive range of practical uses. It can also replace the need for secondary processing, such as brazing or joining, making a single part, rather than combining two parts to achieve the same geometry.
What is Traditional Manufacturing?
Traditional manufacturing is the process of subtracting material through cutting, machining, drilling, or grinding techniques. These processes have been executed since the beginning of the industrial revolution, evolving globally for the manufacturing of nearly every type of product used today. Traditional manufacturing lines are often limited to the production of a single product or a combination of similar products at higher volumes than additive manufacturing. With traditional processes, producing customizable, small/limited run, or highly complex products in a cost effective manner becomes a larger challenge.
The four main categories of traditional manufacturing processes include:
Injection Molding works by injecting molten materials into a mold. Because this process allows for parts to be produced in large volumes, it is typically used as a mass production process.
Machining is the process of subtracting material, typically metal, to create parts for machines, tools, transportation, and more.
Forming is a mechanical process where materials, usually metals, undergo plastic deformations to form required shapes and sizes through compression, and tension.
Joining is the process where two or more materials are assembled to form a single unit. This can include welding, soldering, bonding and brazing.
When does additive manufacturing make sense?
Additive manufacturing provides numerous benefits, from reduced waste and faster prototypes to the subversion of supply chain issues and the ability to make complex shapes easily. For smaller batch projects it can be an ideal approach for multiple executions:
Prototyping-Additive manufacturing quickly delivers detailed iterations early in the product development life cycle, with fine details, functionality, and realistic aesthetics.
Components-Additive manufacturing produces on-demand, lightweight components that can withstand extreme conditions. This is a great process for the medical, gas, oil and energy industries due to the ability to create various control-valve components, pressure gauge pieces, turbine nozzles, rotors, and more, as well as functional prototypes, surgical grade components, and anatomical models.
When does traditional manufacturing make sense?
While there are a lot of benefits attached to additive manufacturing, it’s not the ideal approach to every project. There are still several reasons to use EDM and other tried and true conventional methods rather than additive manufacturing.
Large Build Size– The size of parts that can be made using a 3D printer is restricted due to the size of the print chambers. Larger parts must be printed in separate pieces and joined together after production, increasing costs and production time.
Large Volumes– Techniques like injection molding are more cost effective to produce in large volumes than additive manufacturing. While the initial investment for additive may be lower than other manufacturing methods, production costs are high, once scaled up for mass production.
So, will additive manufacturing one day replace traditional manufacturing?
In order to become the most viable choice a number of things must evolve. The limitations to size, material, and higher volumes of production require a great deal of advancement. While Additive manufacturing is an incredible option for a number of projects where traditional methods just don’t make sense, until the aforementioned challenges can be overcome, it will remain an integral part of a growing family of manufacturing methods, alongside conventional approaches, to build a stronger future.