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Bigger Bucks for Additive Manufacturing in the Stuff That Makes the Stuff

Posted on August 9th, 2017 by in New Materials & Applications

Molding Die Set

Image by Arne HĂĽckelheim [CC BY 3.0] via Wikimedia Commons

Additive manufacturing is certainly bending down the cost and time curve for part production. Can it do the same for production of tooling used in traditional manufacturing techniques?

The engineering required in bringing a new product to market doesn’t stop when the detailed design is delivered to manufacturing. Figuring out how to manufacture a product takes as much – if not more – engineering with the additional constraint of product line profitability now more heavily weighted. Cost is seldom a primary concern during conceptual design but is front and center during manufacturing development.

Published earlier, an interesting article in Plastics News entitled 3D printing a ‘billion dollar industry’ for tooling posits that the value delivered by 3D printing of tooling exceeds that of producing final parts by an order of magnitude. Discussed during a presentation July 31 at the Center for Automotive Research’s Management Briefing Seminars in Traverse City by Lonnie Love, corporate fellow and group leader at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, early results of 3D printed tooling appear to be promising. “But printed cars is a million dollar industry,” Love said. “Printed tools is a billion dollar industry.”

Mr. Love’s statement makes sense. Manufacturing quality parts reliably and economically at volume sometimes requires complex and intricate tooling. Manufacturing processes such as investment casting and injection molding require complicated dyes with internal cooling passages, slides, gates, ejector pins, and a host of other devices to make and remove the piece parts. Based on my experience in the aerospace industry, tooling to produce a multi-vane airfoil cluster could require a 12 month lead time and cost in excess of $300,000 to produce a final casting valued at $400. Evan at a cursory glance, there appears to be opportunity for additive manufacturing to contribute significant impact from both a cost and lead time perspective in tooling production. Have a look at the following animation to better appreciate how complex the injection molding process can be.

Additive manufacturing uses a variety of deposition techniques building parts in layers. For components like airfoils or most plastic parts manufactured by injection molding, the necessary smooth surface finish would mean that 3D printed tooling would need some form of polishing before use.

From initial concept to end of life disposition, every product lives a life cycle. First applied as rapid prototyping during the conceptual design phase, additive manufacturing is now finding application during the manufacturing development phase. With a little more unconventional knowledge, where will it be applied next?

How does your company use 3D printing in realizing its product line? Tell us about your quest for unconventional knowledge and what it could mean for the future of your products or companies. Share your thoughts in the comments section below and don’t forget to follow us on your favorite social media channel.

All opinions shared in this post are the author’s own.

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