Additive Manufacturing: Enter the Disruption

The journey of additive manufacturing has just begun, and there are miles to go, and loads of benefits to reap.


Additive Manufacturing is a disruptive technology
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For a technology that has been around for 30 years and captured the popular imagination for the last few, Additive Manufacturing or 3D Printing has still not found widespread use in hardcore manufacturing, and surprisingly, the reason could be just want of trying. The technology with the greatest disruptive potential has not yet started the process of disruption, but it is just a matter of time.

“The manufacturing industry could be transformed by 3D printing, but business owners don't understand the technology, slowing its adoption,” Adrian Keppler, CEO of EOS, a global technology leader in additive manufacturing told a major TV network in the US recently.

But there are companies who have understood the significance of additive manufacturing only too well and are already reaping the benefits of it, especially in aviation. Global giant General Electric Company or GE, which has constantly reinvented itself in its latest avatar is describes itself as a global digital industrial company, is betting big on additive manufacturing.

Aviation – the early adopter

During the Paris Air Show held June 2017, Tomas Kellner Editor-in-Chief at GE, wrote about the breakthrough GE achieved when it was designing a new, fuel-efficient jet engine that could dramatically reduce fuel consumption as well as emissions. The key to this was the fuel nozzle with a complex interior geometry that necessitated more than 20 parts to be welded and brazed together – rendering it almost impossible to make. GE engineers tried to cast it eight times, and failed every time. Finally, additive manufacturing solved the problem when a vendor ‘printed’ the nozzle that not only combined all 20 parts into a single unit, but it also weighed 25 per cent less than an ordinary nozzle and was more than five times as durable.

Also at the Paris Air Show 2017, French company Safran Aircraft Engines – a world leader in aircraft engines, displayed its Saphir 4.2 APU or auxiliary power unit, which is just a small turbine engine, generally fitted in the rear of a plane, providing electrical, pneumatic or mechanical power, depending on what the plane needs, and mainly on the ground. Made of nothing but 3D printed parts, the Safran APU is ready and awaiting flight certification at the moment. Like in the case of the GE fuel nozzle, in the Safran APU too designers were able to reduce the number of parts that had to be assembled, and even decrease their weight. Some parts are half the weight of those made with a conventional production process. Furthermore, the 3D printing process allows making certain single-piece assemblies in complex shapes, instead of machining several parts and assembling them.

In another development, Arconic, a global technology, engineering and advanced manufacturing leader, recently announced that Airbus and Arconic have achieved a 3D printing first – the installation of a 3D printed titanium bracket on a series production Airbus commercial aircraft, the A350 XWB. Next, Sciaky, Inc., a subsidiary of Phillips Service Industries, Inc. (PSI) and leading provider of metal additive manufacturing (AM) solutions, announced that it won the TCT Aerospace Application Award, along with Lockheed Martin, for the successful production of titanium propellant tanks using Sciaky’s industry-leading Electron Beam Additive Manufacturing (EBAM®) technology. For this particular application, Lockheed Martin Space Systems reduced costs by 55%, material waste by 75%, and production time by 80% by using Sciaky’s EBAM metal 3D printing solution over traditional forging methods.

The journey of additive manufacturing has just begun, and there are miles to go, and loads of benefits to reap.

Not just aviation

From dental implants to space shuttles, additive manufacturing has captured the imagination of design engineers and policy planners, for the sheer versatility and practical advantages that come with it. For the emerging e-mobility technologies, 3D printing is a boon for lightweighting and consequent emission reduction. As Keppler says, 3D technology allows the construction of lightweight parts – a feature that could benefit vehicle makers in particular as the auto industry shifts toward electrification, and as more regulators impose emission limits. “If you print lightweight components by using bionic design, this will help you to reduce the weight of a car or a plane,” he said, as that increases efficiency and reduces emissions.

Global technology powerhouse Siemens extensively uses AM technology for rapid prototyping and has introduced serial production solutions for rapid manufacturing of small fuel mixers and for rapid repair of burner tips for mid-size gas turbines. Siemens had started using Additive Manufacturing technology in 2009 at a plant in Sweden, and opened a production facility for metal 3D printed components in early 2016.

Dassault Systèmes, the French leading software company that specialises in the production of 3D design software, 3D digital mock-up and product lifecycle management solutions, is in the process of launching a 3D Printing Service that will be accessible via a web app, and target the end users. With the app, anyone will be able to design 3D models, check if their models are solid enough, and if not, the company will have their topology optimised for 3D printing, and send to a 3D printing service or company for the final stage of production. Dassault Systèmes will charge a fee to the 3D printing provider based on the value of the product. “This service will be the Amazon of 3D printing,” said Bernard Charles, Chief Executive Officer, Dassault Systèmes, during his recent visit to India. There will be other vendors and service providers with similar offers that will make the sophisticated high end printers and materials available even to the smaller manufacturers with no budget for investing in own facilities.

Just how disruptive it is going to be? The implications are enormous as the existing supply chains, logistics, materials, and more importantly, revenue models are all going to get disrupted. This is best summed up by Mohammad Ehteshami, the former head of engineering at GE Aviation who now runs GE Additive that is focusing on the latest manufacturing techniques, who was instrumental in the fuel nozzle development. “I was excited but also disturbed,” he said. “I knew that we found a solution, but I also saw that this technology could eliminate what we’ve done for years and years and put a lot of pressure on our financial model.” But then, the history of technology is replete with such disruptive forces, which ultimately make things better.


Pix1: 3D-printed fuel nozzle. Image credit: GE Additive/GE Reports

Pix2: Laser Metal Deposition – the process involves a laser beam used to form a melt pool on a metallic substrate, into which powder is fed. Image credit: Adrien Daste, Safran Media Library.

Pix3: The 3D-printed titanium bracket. Image credit: Airbus Industrie.

Pix4: Siemens burner heads manufactured by additive process. Image credit: Siemens Press.