3D Printing – The Revolution is Happening
3D Printing is not about replacing conventional manufacturing but complementing it, filling up the gaps in customised and complex part making.
For conventional manufacturing.
Additive Manufacturing (AM)
One of the main advantages of 3D Printing or Additive Manufacturing (AM) is that it facilitates manufacturing of customised products on demand, at relatively affordable cost. To that extent, use of the word revolution, which in the conventional sense means a sudden and transformative change looks a little far-fetched but then the Industrial Revolution that first changed the world of manufacturing dramatically was no sudden change but a phenomenon that happened over several decades with multiple inventions, complementing each other, working towards the common goal. In the case of 3D printing, it is certainly not going to replace mass manufacturing in its present for the simple reason that it will be uneconomical to do so, regardless of other factors. The revolution is instead in addressing the gaps, especially in designing parts too complex for conventional manufacturing. But with technologies rapidly evolving in the era of digital transformation, coupled with the need for protecting the environment, additive manufacturing is certainly one of the most disruptive technologies that has been around for over three decades but finding wider applications now.
The celebrated example of the fuel nozzle designed and 3D printed by GE for the LEAP jet engine is well known. Previously made from 20 components, the walnut sized complex nozzle is now a single piece marvel of engineering thanks to 3D printing. GE Aviation now ‘prints’ 600 of them every week at the Alabama plant in US, thus also achieving the mass production feat. In fact in October 2018, GE printed the 30,000th fuel nozzle. Having tasted success, GE is now in the process of designing and manufacturing more such parts at the GE Aviation’s Additive Technology Centre in Cincinnati, probably the world’s largest and most advanced 3D-printing and development centre. GE has also invested over USD 200 million at its Pune facility in India at its flexible “multi-modal” factory inaugurated in 2015, and is as groundbreaking for India as it is for GE. This digitally connected factory also has AM facilities. The fact that the India’s only indigenously built fighter aircraft Tejas is powered by GE engines and the increasing efforts for manufacturing defence equipment locally means there is room for more such facilities.
The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has already used 3D printed parts in its Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) MK III recently. Manufactured by Wipro 3D, the metal Additive Manufacturing (AM) Solutions and Services business of Wipro, the development is keeping in step with the global trends, and indicative of the vast potential the technology holds for the aerospace field, where every gram saved in weight counts. Wipro 3D’s Additive Manufacturing Solution Centre is a comprehensive, multi-purpose metal Additive Manufacturing facility, that offers Additive Consulting, Additive Design & Engineering Solutions, Contract Manufacturing Services as well as Research & Development services. Components manufactured by the additive manufacturing process are not only stronger, but also lighter and more durable. Similarly, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited is also using 3D printed parts in its engine development programme. In fact, as Anand Prakasam, Country Manager, EOS – India, the subsidiary of the German company and a major player in the sector told Industrial Automation in an interview earlier, “At the moment 70% of our business in India comes from the government or public sector, which is mainly from HAL, ISRO, DRDO, etc., related to aerospace and other critical components.”
But is AM living up to its potential, especially in India? “Additive manufacturing has made a significant impact on industries like aerospace, automotive, healthcare but the improper infrastructure and implementation of AM has been a challenge and around 80% of the applications is still untapped,” says Rahul Mundada, Territory Manager, think3D, a one-stop shop for 3D printing in India. Spearheading the company's business in India’s western region – sales, marketing, operations, after sales services and branding of the company that offers all kinds of 3D printers, 3D filaments, 3D scanners; offer 3D printing, 3D scanning, 3D design services and conducts regular trainings and workshops to spread awareness on 3D printing technology – Rahul has a bird’s eye view of developments in the segment. “The value added by AM is a key factor in its adoption. For example, in aerospace, the possibility of manufacturing complex parts, a simpler assembly, reduction in weight and lead time shrinks the comparative cost gap and the value justifies its adoption. Due to collaborations, expiring patents, open source projects, materials and new developments, additive manufacturing is now more accessible than before,” adds Rahul.
In fact many Indian companies have already incorporated 3D printing as part of their growth strategies for the future. For global companies with operations in India – companies like GE, Bosch and Siemens among others – 3D printing is part of their strategies. “3D Printing and Additive Manufacturing technologies are key strategies for developing customised limited batch products in lesser time and costs. 3D Printing today is not just used for product design validation and functional prototyping, but is also used for final product development for end use applications,” says Vikas Khanvelkar, Managing Director, DesignTech Systems Ltd, an authorised distributor for Stratasys rapid prototyping machines/3D printers in India. “Right from building human organs for mock surgeries planning and strategising in medical and healthcare industry, to developing wearable fashion jewellery; from building bridges and other applications in civil engineering, to developing parts for space applications, 3D printing has emerged and evolved to become one of the key technologies for producing parts. If we remain laggards in these new trends and technologies, we will fall back as our knowledge and capabilities as a nation will become redundant and we will lose our cutting edge,” adds Vikas.
Replacement parts market
At the Siemens Mobility RRX Rail Service Centre in Germany, a digital rail maintenance centre that offers the highest level of digitalisation in the rail industry, the company has installed advanced FDM 3D printing from Stratasys. According to Michael Kuczmik, Head of Additive Manufacturing, Siemens Mobility GmbH, Customer Service, the ability to 3D print customised replacement parts on-demand has increased its flexibility to meet customer requirements. “Every train has to go through maintenance several times a year. As you can imagine, all our customers would like this process to be as quick as possible, but they still expect maximum levels of detail, safety and quality in the work we do. We also have to consider unplanned or last-minute jobs, and if you look at the different train models and companies we service, this requires a lot of customised solutions. This is where the Stratasys Fortus 450mc fits in perfectly, providing us the ability to rapidly and cost-effectively produce one-off, customised production parts,” says Kuczmik.
What is true of rail services is even more relevant when it comes to shipping – commercial and naval. Rather than carry a huge inventory of spare parts, it will be easier to print parts that are most likely to need replacement while still at sea. Similar is the case in aerospace, with space stations.
Another area is manufacturing obsolete parts. Many industries are using plants and equipments that are still working but no longer in production and getting replacement parts is not easy as these are no longer manufactured by the OEMs. In this case additive manufacturing can help. “I can give you an example of a large petrochemicals group that came to us to know which of these parts are suitable for additive manufacturing and we did a screening for them and now they are in the next step of how to productionise these parts,” says Anand Prakasam of EOS – India.
So the debate is not about additive manufacturing replacing conventional manufacturing, but rather of supplementing and even strengthening it to achieve further efficiencies. As Rahul Mundada, says, “AM is not here to replace traditional manufacturing but rather complement it. Organisations are now trying to shift from AM prototyping to AM production (low batch). State-of-the-art factories have both traditional and AM technologies and their use depends on the project – it can be AM, casting/moulding, etc., or hybrid manufacturing – AM plus traditional.”
Pix1: GE Aviation’s Additive Technology Centre in Cincinnati, USA. Image credit: GE Aviation
Pix2: The GSLV Mk III on the launch pad. Image credit: ISRO.
Pix3: Anand Prakasam, Country Manager, EOS – India.
Pix4: Rahul Mundada, Territory Manager, think3D.
Pix5: Vikas Khanvelkar, Managing Director, DesignTech Systems Ltd.
Pix6: The Stratasys Fortus 450mc.
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