What Is Additive Manufacturing?

Additive manufacturing is changing how we make things. Here’s what you need to know about how 3D-printing is transforming industry.

What is additive manufacturing?

Traditional manufacturing cuts away at raw material to reveal the desired shape, the way a sculptor carves a block of stone to create a statue. In additive manufacturing, that process is flipped. Instead of removing material, the desired form is built up by adding material in precisely the desired shape.

How does additive manufacturing work?

First, all the necessary design information is put into a file using 3D modelling software like Computer Aided Design (CAD). Additive manufacturing—also called 3D printing—takes those digital designs and deposits them on an additive machine, layer by layer from metal powder or plastic. Each layer is fused into place with a laser or by some other means, and then the next layer is applied. The process is repeated until the object has been produced. In other words, additive manufacturing marries software with the material world.

What makes additive manufacturing beneficial?   

Additive manufacturing illustrates the potential for exponential growth when physical and digital processes converge. Additive components are typically lighter, more durable, and more efficient than traditional casting and forged parts, because they can be made as one piece, requiring less welds, joints and assembly. Because additive parts are essentially “grown” from the ground up, they generate far less waste material. Freed of traditional manufacturing restrictions, additive manufacturing dramatically expands the design possibilities for engineers. Some additive designs are adapted from structures found in nature—these are called “bionic designs”—in order to find optimal solutions. The additive company Concept Laser is already 3D printing bionic components for airplanes

What can be made with additive manufacturing?

A huge range of goods and products are already being produced with additive manufacturing, from delicate jewelry to massive engine blocks, and the possibilities for countless further applications are only beginning to be discovered. Some grab headlines, like the startup in Dubai says it can 3D print 200 square meters of concrete a day. But many other applications are making a major impact on power generation, marine propulsion, semiconductor manufacturing equipment, and so on. The list goes on and on.

How about ultra-complex jet engine parts? When engineers at GE Aviation set out to design a new engine that could reduce fuel consumption as well as emissions, they developed an intricate fuel nozzle with a tip that would spray fuel into the jet engine’s combustor and help determine how efficient it is. But the tips’ interior geometry was so complex, it was almost impossible to actually make. It had more than 20 parts that had to be welded and brazed together. So GE partnered with Morris Technologies, a pioneering company in the field of additive technology, who were able to 3D-print the fuel nozzle tip out of nickel alloy. The new nozzle did exactly what it was supposed to, and not only that, it weighed 25 percent less than an ordinary nozzle and was more than five times as durable.


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What are the different types of additive manufacturing?

There are many types of additive manufacturing. Here are simplified explanations of the main types and categories.

1) VAT Photopolymerisation uses a material called liquid photopolymer resin. This liquid resin is held in a vat, into which a build platform is lowered. This platform moves downward slowly, and a UV light cures the resin layer by layer. In the end, the liquid resin can be drained out, leaving a 3D object.

2) Material jetting works a bit like an ink jet printer. Material is jetted onto a platform via a moving nozzle. The material solidifies, and then the nozzle adds another layer. There many types of machines of varying complexity that can do this.

3) Binder jetting uses a powder-based material, which is spread onto a platform with a roller. The print head then deposits an adhesive onto the powder according to the design. Then the platform lowers by one layer’s thickness, and the process is repeated.

4) Material extrusion draws the 3D-printing material throw a heated nozzle that deposits it layer by layer. The nozzle extrudes the material in the desired pattern, and then the platform raises or lowers for the next layer.

5) Powder Bed Fusion uses lasers to fuse powder material on a platform. The loose powder can then be removed after the object has been built up. Direct metal laser melting (DMLM) can involve several lasers as powerful as 1 kilowatt — enough to burn a hole in a wall — fusing as many as 1,250 layers of fine superalloy powder into the desired shape.

6) Sheet lamination uses sheets of metal that are bonded together. Once a sheet is added with an adhesive, a laser cuts the required shaped, and then the next layer is added.

7) Directed Energy Deposition builds layers onto fixed 3D objects, rather than a horizontal platform. The nozzle moves around the object adding material, which is then melted with a laser, electron beam or plasma arc. This process still works layer by layer, but from all different directions.

Hub-+-Spoke-3-GE-Additives-Body-Jan's-versionWhat do additive machines look like? 

The size and shape of additive machines depends on the process it uses. An at-home 3D printer might be only 8 inches tall and weigh 3 pounds. At the other end of the spectrum, GE Additive announced in June it was developing the world’s largest laser-powered 3D printer that prints parts from metal powder. The printer will be able to make parts that fit inside a cube with 1-meter sides. The machine will print aviation parts, and will have applications for manufacturers in the automotive, power, and oil and gas industries.

What materials are used in additive manufacturing?

Many different types of materials can be used in additive manufacturing, including UV-curable photopolymer resins plastics, metal, ceramic powders, sand, glass, photopolymers, polymers, waxes, and paper.

A new manufacturing plant in Saint-Eustache, Quebec produces titanium powder, which can be used in additive processes to built jet engine and gas turbine parts, as well as hip replacements and skull implants. The process of creating titanium powder entails blasting titanium wire inside a two-storey silver reactor with plasma jets burning at 3,000 degrees Celsius to instantly atomize it.


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How will additive manufacturing affect businesses?

The possibilities for new applications of additive manufacturing are continuing to expand, and the cost of using the technology is going down. Additive manufacturing saves on labour, while at the same creating new markets for higher-skilled jobs. Large and small companies alike are adopting additive manufacturing technologies. One major outcome is that more goods are being manufactured at or close to their point of purchase or consumption. Also, goods are becoming much more customized, because altering them is as simple as tweaking the design, not retooling the equipment.

Why is additive manufacturing important?

Additive machines fuse together fine layers of powdered metal with a laser beam and print three-dimensional objects directly from a computer file. With few limits on the final shape, the method gives engineers new freedoms and eliminates the need for factories filled with specialized machines or expensive tooling. “With additive, you can design as you go and create architectures that cannot be manufactured by any other means,” says Joe Vinciquerra, Technology Platform Leader, Additive Materials at GE Global Research. For example, additive technology gives companies the power of rapid prototyping, so they can quickly iterate their designs and bring products to market faster.

The rise of additive manufacturing could create a whole new manufacturing ecosystem. Think of your local pizza shop, which is nothing other than a just-in-time manufacturing facility, with components customized to your specifications. We’ll start to see manufacturers operating more like that, where customers can send in a design file and have a part in their hands much sooner than previously imaginable. For example, Jung & Co. Gerätebau GmbH, a specialist in stainless steel components, relies on additive manufacturing to ensure that spare parts for beverage filling plants are available more quickly.

What is on-demand manufacturing?

On-demand manufacturing is a manufacturing process wherein goods are produced only when they’re needed. In traditional manufacturing, an assembly line works on standard shifts to produce large quantities of products, which are then kept in storage facilities until they are ready for shipping. With manufacturing on demand (MOD), scalable and adjustable assembly and manufacturing processes work to complete customized packages based on real-time or current data from a client. Additive technologies make on-demand manufacturing easier for companies to implement.

“Think of it as the Uberization of manufacturing, where supply can be accessed anywhere in the world to produce goods at the click of button,” writes Alan Amling, vice president of corporate strategy for UPS. “This is a once-in-a-generation logistics opportunity, as so-called additive manufacturing will optimize the time and cost of making and delivering goods. Mass customization will be the new normal.”

How long has additive manufacturing been around?

The first type of additive manufacturing was stereolithography, which uses lasers to solidify layers of light-sensitive liquid polymer. Stereolithography was first used in 1987 by a company called 3D systems. Prior to that, manufacturing processes were subtractive: machine parts and objects were machined out of a larger mass of raw material like wood or stone using tools like saws, lathes and laser cutters.


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What does the future hold for additive manufacturing?

“3D printing is still in a pre-revolutionary stage, sort of like the Internet in the early 1990s,” says Ray Kurzweil, director of engineering at Google and Singularity University chairman. Though just beginning to show its potential, additive manufacturing is advancing rapidly.

Mohammad Ehteshami, head of GE Additive, predicts that the additive industry will grow from $7 billion today to $80 billion in a decade. GE estimates that by 2025, more than 20 percent of new products will involve additive processes of some kind. Which is why GE is betting big and investing heavily in additive companies and technologies. In 2016, GE expanded its additive portfolio and spent more than $1 billion to buy controlling stakes in two leading manufacturers of industrial 3D printers: Sweden’s Arcam AB and Germany’s Concept Laser. In September, Arcam opened an new plant in Saint-Eustache,  Quebec that will produce titanium powder. GE is in the process of creating a network of additive production capabilities across many industries and regions, by selecting companies to become certified additive production centers for its customers.

Several GE businesses, including Aviation, Oil & Gas, Power and Healthcare, are already benefiting from additive manufacturing. GE Aviation recently opened the Additive Technology Center (ATC) near Cincinnati. The 130,000-square-foot facility holds some 30 machines that print metal.

How do we hasten the future of additive manufacturing?

A key strategy is bringing 3D printing into the classroom. 3D printing could prepare students for the future of manufacturing by developing a kind of “additive mindset.” Teaching an additive mindset could unleash a whole generation of makers in the same way we now have a generation of photographers thanks to Instagram and Snapchat. To make this a reality, GE Additive is investing $3 million over the next two years to subsidize 3D-printers for the classroom. Participating schools will receive polymer printers, educational modules, professional training, and activities for the primary and secondary levels. More than 400 schools will receive 3D printers as a part of the GE Additive Education Program, reaching more than 180,000 students around the globe.

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