3D printing is growing up

Today, 3D printers for domestic use are already available in every electronics store from a value of 100 euros upwards. An unmistakable sign that the technology is increasingly establishing itself in industrial production is the use of additive processes in series production for aviation-certified components at Airbus.

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Additive Manufacturing: What is it and how does it work?

If something in the household gets broken, the mistake is found quickly. Only the replacement part which is needed for a repair by yourself is not available at all. Those who have ever faced this problem will immediately be inspired by the magic word additive manufacturing - like the market for 3D printers for home-use purposes. However, in order to easily print any part designed on a computer, you have to dive deep into the subject. Formnext, the annual trade fair held in Frankfurt in mid-November, has become an important meeting place for experts from a wide range of industrial sectors, and not only for industrial users. In October last year, Formnext and the University of Reutlingen published a bilingual brochure that provides a very comprehensive overview of the 20 most important processes and terms in "additive manufacturing" in words and pictures for orientation.

The term additive manufacturing results from the differentiation from previous manufacturing processes, in particular for parts and materials that are subject to high mechanical loads. For this purpose, blanks were usually required that exceeded the desired result in all dimensions. Using various tools, the material was then removed, or subtracted, according to the desired shape of the part. Complex cutting machines, high material costs and last but not least time were the prerequisites for this. If the rigidity of the material should not suffer, certain cutting speeds may not be exceeded due to heat generation and the parts must also be cooled during the process. For all three aspects, additive manufacturing therefore offers enormous benefits. No wonder, then, that this development has made incredible progress in recent months.


Airbus starts 3D series production

In April of last year, Dr. Adrian Keppler, Managing Director at EOS, said to Handelsblatt that he saw the world market leader in industrial 3D printing at the beginning of this application area. Less than six months later, Airbus announced the launch of industrially 3D-printed door locking shafts for its A350 XWB passenger aircraft on an EOS printer, the EOS M 400-4 system. With this device, the company from near Munich has got something under control that can confidently be described as a breakthrough: the so-called DMLS process. The abbreviation stands for "Direct Metal Laser Sintering". The procedure is, like the selective laser sintering SLS already longer known. With SLS, plastic, sand, ceramic or metal powder is melted with a CO² laser in a protective atmosphere. In the case of fast direct metal laser sintering, a pronounced susceptibility to cracking as well as high material and processing costs have so far complicated the industrial application, which Airbus has now apparently solved for the locking shafts of the A350 XWB with the EOS printer. According to the aircraft manufacturer, the first A350s with the printed locking shafts will be in the air as early as next year.


 
 

Airbus has been using 3D printing techniques since 2014. The supplier's first parts are now being serially produced.©Airbus

In January of this year, Airbus supplier Liebherr also announced the production of the brackets for the nose landing gear of the A350 XWB. According to the company, the first Airbus system parts ever introduced for titanium 3D printing. Already 18 months earlier, states the German supplier, the German Federal Aviation Authority (Luftfahrtbundesamt) had successfully approved the process for component manufacture, so that Liebherr is now supplying EASA Form I certified series parts. General Electrics Aviation is currently reporting similar progress. Following approval by the American FAA, the company announced for January this year that it would be supplying mounting brackets for the engine cowlings of its GEnx engines, which power the Boeing Dreamliner or the 747-8, manufactured in additive production. The company had previously announced the use of 3D-printed parts in its Catalyst propeller turbine. The extent to which the new production technology has progressed in aviation is indicated by further examples.


In the automotive industry it has long been routine

3D printing in industrial series production is already well advanced in the automotive industry, as the example of BMW impressively demonstrates. As the manufacturer announced at the end of last year, one million parts had already been produced using 3D printing in the past 10 years, a fifth of them only in 2018! This shows the enormous growth rates that the technology has now achieved in the automotive and mechanical engineering sectors.

At BMW, it was specifically the guide rail for the window of a side door of the i8 roadster model with which the manufacturer installed the millionth part from a 3D printer. The history of this record is also impressive: At the carmaker's Additive Manufacturing Center, engineers developed the process for printing the window rails in just five days and implemented it in the Leipzig production facility. According to a BMW press release, the Multi-Jet-Fusion technology had been further developed together with the printer manufacturer Hewlett-Packard and now 100 of these rails can be printed daily for the i8. Previously, the Bavarians had already converted the production of the soft-top holder for their roadsters to 3D printing and thus converted the former plastic injection-moulded part to aluminium. The result, according to BMW, was weight savings combined with higher torsional stiffness. A stronger example of the possibilities and advantages of 3D printing in industrial production and the experience gained with it is unlikely to be found.


BMW announced one million parts had already been produced using 3D printing in the past 10 years.

 3D printing in industrial series production is already well advanced in the automotive industry.  


Perspectives and information

This is because it not only reflects the current state of application well, but should also promote the ambition for further progress in other areas. For example, in medicine: As the Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation IPA presents in a video with Vince Ebert, the researchers have succeeded in producing ceramic dental prostheses in 3D printing at considerably lower costs than would otherwise be the case. In the IPA video, the physicist, known as a cabaret artist, also vividly presents further application examples for the enormous flexibility of the technology.

Even apart from dental technology, 3D printing accelerated medical progress long ago, as DeviceMed, the portal of the trade journal of the same name for manufacturers of medical products and their suppliers, shows. In addition to accurately fitting prostheses, implants and instruments, for which this manufacturing technology was used at an early stage, individual organ models are also printed for better preparation of complicated procedures. According to DeviceMed, however, the idea of printing organs directly from collagen and planting them with stem cells in order to obtain quickly available rejection-free transplants that make organ donation superfluous is still a "dream of the future".

Whether and when this may be heard will also depend on the personnel side of the 3D print development, which, as shown in the Handelsblatt article referenced at the beginning, could form the "bottleneck". In the long term, interested companies can only be referred to the contact to research institutes and universities. In the short and medium term, industrial users in mechanical engineering, automotive and aircraft construction could find help from consulting and personnel service providers. In any case, there is plenty of useful information for possible applications of the technology today, e.g. from the FA 105 technical committee of the Association of German Engineers (VDI), which has a series of guidelines (VDI 3405) for additive manufacturing processes. The "Association for 3D Printing" is also a contact point for interested parties.


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