Additive manufacturing (AM) is different; in virtually every way it has different advantages, limitations, opportunities and challenges when compared to traditional processes. Those difference are what make AM unique and quite powerful. Yet, those differences make it difficult to make the transition. That creates a conundrum, especially when it comes to production applications.
This conundrum has two parts. The first part is that AM is a solution looking for a problem. Since companies can’t make small quantities of complex parts cost effectively and in a timely manner, they don’t have an existing demand for such things. Instead, they often seek the same, just better, faster or cheaper. However, if everything remains the same, AM is often a poor choice.
The second part of the conundrum is that AM’s differences mean that knowledge and experience are needed. Without this insight, implementation and execution may be challenging. But how does a company develop this insight when it cannot see a business case to make the shift to AM considering the first part of the conundrum?
The most common example of the conundrum is the presentation of a part designed for machining, moulding or casting accompanied by the question of “how much will it cost, how long will it take and what quality will I get, if I use AM?” For applications beyond prototypes, the answer is often that it will cost more, take longer and have different qualities. For those without some serious business drivers that tilt the scales in favour of AM, the investigation often ends there.
For a happy AM outcome in this example, the part should be designed for AM. It should be complex, have reduced mass and be adjusted for the targeted process. The designer or engineer needs to forget everything he has previously learned and design something radically different. This is quite a change and is asking a lot of the individual. This means that designers must make a big leap in skillsets, often without the benefit of guidance, prior to the need for AM production arising.
This scenario applies to many other differences spanning material properties, quality considerations, process control, operations, and costing. Effectively, companies that wish to use AM for production applications must discover these differences before the need arises so that the can be leveraged and managed.
So how can a company extract itself from this conundrum? Create “sandboxes”, to use a software term, where individuals can play with new concepts without penalty for failure. Expose individuals to the AM process rather than presenting them with the final part so that they gain an appreciation for strengths and limitations. And encourage “baby steps” that allow them to progress at their own pace towards the end goal.
In design, the baby steps may be adding or modifying a few features rather than diving into highly complex, topology optimised parts. Let them first come to the realisation that some rules can be broken before taking the old rulebook away. For exposure, let designers witness the AM process, from start to finish, so that they gain a hands-on appreciation for what is possible and what is not.
"Let designers witness the AM process, from start to finish, so that they gain a hands-on appreciation for what is possible and what is not."
For the sandbox, encourage trial and error as learning experiences, either in parallel with conventional work or as a separate activity. One option is to encourage alternative designs for a part that is currently being prototyped and print them all. While the modified design won’t be useful since it doesn’t match the true design intent, the penalty-free experience will be invaluable. Another option would be to tackle alternatives for projects with lesser consequences. For example, try design for AM on a production fixture that is not needed immediately. The last idea is to provide a few hours a week to design something radically different and then have it printed. Make it fun or make it competitive, but make it an activity were any outcome is a success.
The conundrum and its resolution are issues for companies big and small. Even in advanced industries that are using AM for production, like aerospace, the challenge exists. Finding good opportunities and marrying them with experience is an oft-cited issue.
At the highest level, the way out of the conundrum is to make the decision that AM will play a role in production at some time in the future. Then, to support that goal, establish the mechanisms to develop AM knowledge. Without that knowledge at your disposal when opportunity knocks, you will either have to go through a discovery phase when the stakes are high or ignore the opportunity.
Quite the conundrum.