Additive Manufacturing (AM) has often been referred to as a revolutionary technology with the potential to steal a march on conventional manufacturing techniques. It has been demonstrated that AM can, in some cases, be faster, less materials-intensive and reduce the time to market. However, the perception of AM in the popular media seems to have outstripped reality, with the unfortunate misconception that large scale AM of big, complex, multi-material products is possible right now.
AM is certainly capable of building complex architectures but there is a risk that we are simply creating beautiful baubles unless we can add greater functionality to these components and products. Materials are the biggest hurdle faced in adding new functionality, but they also present us with the greatest opportunities for AM. A more sympathetic approach to materials selection for AM could see some of the public’s less wild imaginings become a reality.
There are five main planks that need to be put in place to make the most of AM; the first is that we need to broaden the pallet of starting materials. While it is currently possible to create industrial AM products out of metals and plastics, the range of materials is limited and needs expanding and optimising. We need to put more focus on accelerating the transition of AM with innovative and unusual materials from research laboratories into factories.
There is also an immediate need to develop industrial-grade AM equipment with multi-tool heads, so that a range of innovative materials can be directly printed in one build operation. No single AM technique will steal the show, it has to be a combined effort with which hybrid machines (AM and subtractive processes) are created that are capable of processing metals, plastics and ceramics simultaneously.
Thirdly, AM has been good at creating complex 3D structures but there has been relatively little focus on integrating them with direct printing of novel thin film materials for electronic components, such as power supplies or sensors. Direct printing of thin films has been limited by the restricted pallet of materials available to AM but this will be overcome by adopting increasingly sophisticated approaches to the materials science and chemistry involved in producing materials for AM.
The fourth plank is the need to monitor the materials in AM processes in-situ. To be able to observe in real-time the physical, chemical and biological processes involved in the printing, will enable us to understand and then control AM processes. Smart in-situ monitoring could involve the full range of analytical methods from spectroscopy to thermal or even magnetic imaging. This would enable us to develop whole new classes of material systems not possible by conventional means.
The final plank is that these wonderful, complex, multi-material AM products will require their properties to be robustly tested. It is not good enough to simply say "we can make…”, it is imperative that we know the exact properties, be they mechanical, optical or electronic. This level of materials development and testing requires that we work more closely with, and adopt the skills of, chemists, physicists, materials scientists, biologists and machine manufacturers.
We need to work hard to make the most of the opportunity that AM presents us with. We need to think big, make ingenious and complex products and adopt ever more efficient and creative approaches to fully let the genie out of the AM bottle. By combining the five main planks together we will form a solid base for the future of AM.
Dr. Kate Black is a Lecturer in Additive Manufacturing at The University of Liverpool, School of Engineering. Kate’s research interests are focused on the development of novel functional materials, using inkjet printing for the manufacture of electronic and optoelectronic devices.
Kate is also the Chairman for Liverpool Women in Science and Engineering, which celebrates and supports women in STEM.
This article first appeared in the October 2015 issue of TCT Magazine. Subscribe to receive your free copy.