Practical Applications and uses for Additive Manufacturing

Although additive manufacturing isn’t a new technology, the recent expansion and developments have meant that it’s hit the limelight more recently, with the possibilities for 3D printing uses seemingly wide open.

Being able to “print” weird and wonderful projects has captured the public’s imagination but there are a number of industries which could be genuinely transformed by this technology.

Not simply a gimmick, additive manufacturing applications offer more than just being economical; the flexibility in design and physical properties not previously possible mean that there’s a range of practical 3D printing applications and additive manufacturing uses.

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3D Printed LEG

How is AM used in Medicine?

So much more is known about the human body than in the past, but the ability to create tissue and organs has always been elusive. This ability to artificially regenerate is something which is highly prized by medical scientists, having the potential to cure or at least overcome the ravages of, disease, illness and injury.

There’s a long way to go before the full range of tissue can be created but there’s been successes already in the laboratory. Bones, cartilage, blood vessels and skin have all been successfully created with the technology of additive engineering, thanks to the ultra-fine layers used during the process, each one just a fraction of a millimetre thick.

The key to the success lies in the use of progenitor cells which have the ability to morph into different types of cells. Binding these to scaffolding which later dissolves provides the basis for new tissue to grow. Ears, bladders, bone and kidneys components work particularly well with this technology but completing it by hand is a clumsy process and the results are less than refined. Using a computer and a printer to lay down the cells is a far more precise process, allowing for the creation of 3D printing uses such as perfectly shaped body parts.

Human skin created from stem cells using a 3D printer.

Human skin created from stem cells using a 3D printer.

Although the capability is now there, work still needs to be done for the process to be improved but the technology could revolutionise transplant waiting lists, with the ability to create body parts on demand.

Skin is the easiest organ to replicate with this technology, with non-hollow organs such as the heart the most complex. This isn’t yet possible, but scientists hope that in the not too distant future, additive manufacturing applications will provide a solution to this too.

But the technology is already being used in medicine in a different way, with customised equipment and surgical tools being produced. Tens of thousands of patients every year benefit from tools made using this method. Dentistry has also become reliant in the production of individual moulds used for casting dental implants.

How is Low Volume Production Enabled?

Additive manufacturing has a number of advantages over conventional methods, but it’s the flexibility and ability to generate a product quickly which are key to its success. When faced with the mass production of large numbers, the technology is not yet competitive and could actually prove to be a disadvantageous choice. However, at low volume or for unique designs, it’s much quicker than conventional means.

There’s a vast number of industries which have made use of the technology such as aerospace, defence, industry and automotive, and each of these has found certain key elements particularly beneficial. Tooling is used in all of these industries and has a broad number of 3D printing applications, and this is one area which can be significantly improved.

How is it Used in Industry?

It’s been suggested that additive manufacturing applications can slash lead times for the fabrication of tooling by as much as 40-90%; this is due in no small part to the far simpler process.

Conventional methods require the intervention of a machinist at several key steps throughout the process, whilst there’s far fewer labour inputs required for additive manufacturing. There’s also less margin for error as 2D drawing don’t need to be interpreted by a machinist; the 3D digital file is simply loaded into the computer and the product created exactly as the specifications demand.

Spread of rapid prototyping by industry worldwide.

Spread of rapid prototyping by industry worldwide.

Ford Motor Company is one big name that has utilised in-house additive manufacturing applications to improve its tooling fabrication processes. The company has created prototypes, and used sand cores and moulds which it has estimated has saved around four months in production and millions of dollars in the process.

But it’s not just large machinery which can use additive manufacturing effectively; the famous watch-maker Citizen has also introduced 3D printing uses to great effect for its production.

Citizen has used additive manufacturing to create custom jigs for its watches; in the past conventional manufacturing only allowed one particular type of custom jig to be produced. This weren’t able to be modified and didn’t support the full range of watches being sold. Additive manufacturing allows Citizen to create a far greater range of tooling at a vastly reduced cost, not just making the process more economical but improving the precision of assembly too.

According to research from Wohlers, published in 2018, the mix of additive manufacturing by industry was split:

  • Industrial – 20%
  • Aerospace 18.9%
  • Motor vehicles – 16.0%
  • Consumer products (including electronics) – 11.7%
  • Medical and dental – 11.3%
  • Academic – 7.9%
  • Others – 7%
  • Government and Military – 5.1% and
  • Architectural – 2.1%

What are Appropriate Uses?

Additive manufacturing has the capacity to produce more or less any part but it’s about using the technology in the way that actually brings a definable advantage, rather than simply using it because it’s possible.

Therefore, many industries such as aerospace and automotive opt to use this technology to bring precision and flexibility to the smaller, core components rather than creating huge parts of the shell this way.

Research and development in these industries relies heavily on additive manufacturing; being able to create test designs quickly is key and old methods could take a significant amount of time. Additive manufacturing allows custom pieces to be created within a much shorter space of time, and also tweaked and modified easily until a production quality piece is achieved.

It’s not just heavy industry which is looking towards additive manufacturing applications to change the face of its processes; retailers are increasingly becoming interested in the possibilities which additive manufacturing offers.

An example of 3D printing used to create these shoes.

An example of 3D printing used to create these shoes.

Lifestyle products such as lamps and furniture could be created in far more intricate and unique designs, thanks to the flexibility of design offered. It also means that production is economical in much smaller numbers too so offering customers a more personalised selection, or even input into their own designs, is far more cost-effective than in the past.

Some experts have suggested that one day shops may have their own 3D printing facilities and could simply print out customer designs in-store.

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