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The additive manufacturing industry is built on the disruptive notion that digital processes can directly lead to physical products. At this year’s Formnext conference in Frankfurt, Germany, vendors and analysts emphasized how the latest innovations in printers and materials must be combined with innovative workflow processes.
“The main goal is the industrialization of 3D printing technology,” says Martin Boch, project lead for metal additive manufacturing at Audi. Boch says Audi’s current use of 3D printing divides up three ways. Research and development occupies about 20% of the company’s use of 3D printing; 60% is for prototyping; and another 20% is for creating spare small parts and tooling. Before Audi can move into serial production of small parts, Boch says it must define standard processes for sourcing both printers and materials.
Audi is using production on a low-volume model, the A4 Limousine, as a proving ground for its process innovation research. A large steel frame section was difficult to manufacture with traditional techniques, including the 1,472°F (800°C) foundry work. By moving the frame section to additive manufacturing, Audi optimized the design for improved cooling and a 50% weight reduction. Audi then used selective laser melting (SLM) to create 10,000 pieces.
Boch says the increased use of 3D printing technologies and processes will be driven by labor costs. Though the A4 part design “was interesting,” the post-printing processes (including powder removal) were too expensive. Audi expects labor costs to drop 10-fold by 2025 as vendors and manufacturers work together on process innovation to match current technical capabilities.
The next stage of disruptive innovation must address both the processes of industrial production and the 3D printing industry itself, according to Dr. Wilderrich Heising with Boston Consulting Group. By nature, so to speak, additive manufacturing technology is disruptive to both the technology of manufacturing and the supply chain. Heising says the industry has reached a point where “every player needs to redefine its strategy.”
He envisions a shift among AM hardware vendors from optimization for quality to optimization for speed. The ability to “increase build rate by up to five times at the same quality” translates to total reduction of machine cost per part by more than 50%. Today some 3D printing processes can be justified for final part production but only at low volume. Heising says speed optimization will lead to the break-even point moving to higher volumes.