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Game-changing tech, infinite opportunities: 3D printing grows up

3D printing is not new, but Stratasys has previewed two new technologies that could change the game. By Freddie Holmes.

Big things are on the way for 3D printing, thanks to the development of an ‘infinite build’ machine, which allows parts to be produced rapidly via additive manufacturing.

Although a prototype for now, Stratasys – a leading 3D printing technology company – says that the Infinite-Build 3D demonstrator was developed to meet changing requirements for the rapid production of strong, light parts of varying size. 3D-printed parts could range from a passenger car armrest, to an entire aircraft interior panel.

Back in 1989, Stratasys co-founder Scott Crump patented a 3D printing technique called fused deposition modelling (FDM), which builds parts layer-by-layer from the bottom up. Through this process, thermoplastic filament is heated and extruded to produce a physical counterpart of a 3D computer-designed model. The Infinite-Build machine takes this traditional FDM technique and flips it on its side, allowing for effectively unlimited part lengths.

Aircraft manufacturer Boeing has played a significant role in the development of this machine, with plans to develop a range of lightweight composite parts in low volumes. In fact, Boeing has been working on various additive manufacturing projects with Stratasys for over a decade, with more than 20,000 in-flight 3D-printed parts. Ford, too, is working with Stratasys as a ‘strategic partner’ to explore new 3D printing applications that have not been possible due to size limitations. The Infinite-Build system could allow OEMs to create composite 3D-printed parts and large interior panels.

This differs from existing 3D printing methods, which have largely been constrained to small-scale prototyping or discrete component production. As Rich Garrity, President of the Americas at Stratasys, explained during a media event in Minneapolis, parts can now be produced in feet as opposed to inches. “With a new way of extruding FDM materials, we can now produce parts as long as we would like on the vertical plane,” he said. “This is another leap forward for FDM.”

A new beginning

Stratasys has been at the forefront of 3D printing developments for several decades, and currently has more than 280 R&D engineers around the world, with approximately 150,000 3D printers in operation across various industries.

“We’ve gone through many years of pioneering, and I would encourage us to not look at the size of the industry, but at how 3D printing can affect the industry in many different ways,” said Stratasys Chief Executive, Ilan Levin. Crump shared a similar view, remarking that that the company had come a long way since its inception, but these technologies marked a “new beginning” for the segment. “Welcome to the future of FDM, 3D printing, and additive manufacturing,” he said at the event. “These are very exciting times.”

The Infinite-Build machine began as a concept at Crump’s ‘skunkworks’, and later transitioned into a full engineering project. For the aerospace industry in particular, this was a significant step, as manufacturers are no longer constrained by the capabilities of existing 3D printing technologies, and in theory, can produce parts of any length.

“One of the problems was size,” explained Teri Finchap, Director of Operations and Quality at Boeing. “With the Infinite-Build [machine], we don’t need numerous small parts. We now have the ability to grow much larger parts at much quicker speeds… You’re adding instead of subtracting when you design now.” Prior to the tour of a manufacturing hub, Crump remarked: “You’ll likely see 18-foot [3D-printed] parts.”

Automotive players will also be looking to leverage opportunities for the greater levels of customisation these machines can afford. But OEMs are not only up against changing consumer demands for form and function, they are also being hard pressed to produce lighter, safer vehicles. “Today we’re doing entry level interior parts and in some cases customised exterior parts, but where we’re headed for tomorrow is much larger,” said Garrity. This would enable the “mass customisation of interiors and the ability to truly lightweight the vehicles of tomorrow,” he suggested.

With the Infinite-Build [machine], we don’t need numerous small parts. We now have the ability to grow much larger parts at much quicker speeds” – Teri Finchap, Director of Operations and Quality, Boeing

Ford is one of a number of vehicle manufacturers investigating 3D printing, and several – ranging from start-ups to other global OEMs – have made significant investments.

In June 2015, start-up manufacturer Divergent 3D revealed the Blade, which it described as the ‘first 3D-printed supercar’. Local Motors of Phoenix, Arizona has been developing the LM3D additive manufactured car, which it says will exceed Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) by 2017. Approximately 75% of the car is 3D-printed, with goals to raise this to 90% in future. Daihatsu, in partnership with Stratasys, has been developing 3D-printed ‘effect skins’, which allow the front and rear bumpers of the Copen model to be customised by the customer, with a dozen base patterns and ten colours to choose from. And at the 2015 Detroit Auto Show, a 3D-printed Shelby Cobra was on display, developed by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) using Cincinnati Incorporated’s Big Area Additive Manufacturing (BAAM) machine. Lonnie Love, Group Leader of Automation, Robotics and Manufacturing at the ORNL said prior to its unveiling: “It’s not going to look like a 3D printed car. It’s going to look like a real, beautiful car.” Daimler Trucks is investigating the use of 3D printing for spare parts, and BMW is one of the investors in Carbon3D, a start-up from Redwind City, USA

Composites

The use of composite materials has been growing “tremendously” across various industries, particularly in aerospace and automotive. Research firm MarketsandMarkets expects the automotive composites market to reach a value of US$11.26bn by 2020. Composite materials typically combine a fibre – such as glass or carbon – with a plastic or metal to reduce weight whilst improving strength.

To this end, Stratasys has also developed a second machine that combines advanced extrusion technology with an eight-axis motion system. This Robotic Composite 3D Demonstrator allows for the application of extruded material to be precisely directed for strength, and can reduce the manufacturing times of a 3D-printed part. In addition, the range of composite materials that can be used has been expanded.

“Functionality has been significantly improved thanks to a very unique tool-changing capability,” said Garrity. “That does two things: we are able to introduce multi materials into FDM now, and we can have much longer unattended operation.”

Looking at future market demand for both technologies, Levin remarked that the future is bright. “The runway ahead of us is long and significant,” he said. “These two units are a step function in nature, not just an incremental improvement. What can be done with an FDM process now couldn’t be done before.”

The digital evolution

As new vehicles become increasingly digitalised, so too do the factories that make them. Garrity highlighted additive manufacturing as a “key enabler” of Industry 4.0 – the highly connected, automated factory of the future. He predicts that large parts will be made “much faster… All the way from CAD to finished product.” Increased flexibility across the automotive supply chain will also ensue, as suppliers print high value, lightweight composite parts, where and when they are needed.

Andreas Saar, Vice President of Manufacturing Engineering Solutions at Siemens PLM Software, remarked that leading manufacturers have to take part in the digital evolution of their facilities if they are to remain at the top. “Companies in the Fortune 500 won’t exist in the next ten years if they don’t understand the impact of digitalisation,” he concluded.

This article appeared in the Q4 2016 issue of Automotive Megatrends Magazine.