We may look back on 2016 as the year metal additive manufacturing (AM) took another leap. I have been actively involved in the industry for over 10 years and have experienced at least two other instances of a marked change in consciousness. Those who have been in the industry longer will be able to identify other shifts of gear. This is a pattern with many emerging manufacturing technologies; technical breakthroughs provide the thrust and markets shift in response. Early on, technologies can be over hyped, especially when the mainstream press catches on to a story, as evidenced by our industry. There are positives and negatives. Simply ask anyone who has held, or holds, shares in some of the big names in additive. Timing is everything and scratching below the surface is a must.
So what of the current status? Are we entering another over-hyped phase as the promise of these technologies entering the manufacturing arena at scale, turns up the gas?
Renishaw is both a user and a developer of metal AM technology and we are privileged to experience both sides. Parts of our business are highly dependent on the use of AM to manufacture end use components, particularly in Dentistry and emerging healthcare applications. Since 2004 we have operated our own Rapid Manufacturing Centre and AM has been a fundamental part of our product development strategy. It is, however, our new product innovations that go beyond prototypes and pre-production parts that will disrupt our own finely tuned manufacturing systems.
An increasing number of our new metrology and healthcare products will be dependent on AM for serialised component manufacture, allowing us to unlock the significant performance improvements that AM can offer. At Renishaw a huge amount of effort, time and care goes into engineering highly productive automated processes and systems specifically to meet our own stringent requirements for ultra-high quality, cost controlled manufacturing. We have always invested in technologies that allow us to keep our manufacturing and production engineering teams tightly integrated with our new product development teams and innovators. We expect AM to play an increasing role in further unlocking process and product improvements to deliver exceptional value, both for Renishaw and our AM customers.
Titanium 3D printed medical implants.
How do companies ensure that the adoption of new innovative manufacturing technologies does not endanger a finely honed operation? In the case of AM we believe one of the first steps is to recognise that AM is not an island, a stand-alone solution or a cure all. Over the years there has been much talk of the displacement of machine tools. Our experience tells us that the truth is somewhat different. AM must be integrated into businesses as part of existing tool chains. There may be adaptation required and there needs to be greater consideration when designing for the process (Design for Additive Manufacturing; DfAM) if the full and perpetual benefits of AM are to be realised. Alongside this is the requirement for ever more advanced software solutions that ease the implementation of AM, including consideration for tooling, fixturing, cleaning and surface treatments with the ever present golden thread of metrology running though all our processes.
One major challenge for companies is how to become educated in the use of AM, particularly as much of the knowledge and experience lies with a relatively small group of early adopters who can be cautious to share their hard won knowledge. My experience, however, of the recent Additive Manufacturing Users Group (AMUG) meeting in St Louis, Missouri, is one example of a very open forum where vendors and users share a great deal of knowledge and expertise. Another positive note is that many of our applications team members and process specialists who support our customers have not grown up with AM but with conventional subtractive technologies. Far from being a hindrance, this experience positively enhances their suitability when implementing AM into production because they already understand how to implement and maintain process capability. It is important not to underestimate the ability of your existing staff to rapidly adopt AM with the right guidance, although initially it makes sense to start with small groups of enthusiasts before scaling up.
Our aim at Renishaw is to share our experiences of integrating AM with our other processes through our global network of Solutions Centres. Here, users can spend time in private AM incubator cells with the full support of dedicated applications engineers and technicians, enabling them to evaluate their AM deployment without the substantial initial outlay. This way customers can develop the products and the business case in a cost controlled manner, before integrating AM into their own factories, thereby significantly reducing the risk of disrupting their manufacturing processes in an unmanaged way.
A specialised example of the solutions centre concept, which cuts across multiple technologies and disciplines, is Renishaw’s Healthcare Centre of Excellence, based at our plant near Cardiff. This dedicated facility is designed to educate and train our customers, whilst working with the wider life sciences community.
Renishaw offers a growing range of innovative healthcare products, from molecular diagnostics, Raman spectroscopy, neurosurgical products and therapies, to implantable devices produced on Renishaw AM systems.
The educational aspects of the Healthcare Centre of Excellence comprise a lecture theatre, software training theatre and a non-sterile simulated neurological operating theatre, complete with an operational CT scanner and viewing gallery. The operating theatre specifically allows in-theatre training on Renishaw’s neurological therapies and procedures and serves as an environment for the successful deployment of AM technologies in healthcare. The whole centre is fully connected with state-of-the-art audio visual and video conferencing technology. Simulated procedures taking place in the operating theatre can be shared worldwide, in real time, via video conference or straight into the adjacent lecture theatre, making the centre a truly flexible resource.
The manufacturing aspect of the facility produces Renishaw’s dental AM products (LaserPFM and LaserAbutments) and its most recent medical product, LaserImplants, that offer a digitised solution to producing craniomaxillofacial patient specific implants (PSIs), jigs and guides. Manufactured under an ISO13485 quality management system, LaserImplants allow Renishaw to connect with, and better understand the end users of alloplastic implantable devices – the surgeons. This in turn benefits Renishaw’s machine customers by offering solutions, not just systems, which have been developed with the end-user in mind whilst maintaining strong business fundamentals.
Investing in resources such as our Healthcare Centre of Excellence is not undertaken lightly. However it is a necessity if metal AM technology is to be successfully implemented into a modern production environment without causing unmanaged disruption. We believe that an eyes wide open pragmatic approach, supported by a period of evaluation and learning in one of Renishaw’s global Solutions Centres, is a perfect starting point for a more detailed appraisal of AM.
A recurring word throughout this article is ‘disruption’. Most probably, AM will either disrupt your business for the better, as you deploy it in a planned and structured way, or your business may well be disrupted by someone else’s use of AM. I know where I’d rather be.
Renishaw on breaking down the barriers to metal additive manufacturing.