Over the past two decades, technological advancements have begun ushering in a new industrial revolution now known as “Industry 4.0”. This shift is not only changing how business is done on a global scale, it is also transforming how companies manufacture and distribute products and services. Additive manufacturing, also called 3D printing, is at the forefront of how Industry 4.0 is revolutionizing the manufacturing industry.
The Federal Group USA (TFGUSA) has embraced this innovative new approach to manufacture stronger and lighter products with much shorter lead times. The state of Michigan’s Project D awarded our company a grant to develop technology to innovate and improve manufacturing. As a result, we have been an early adopter of additive manufacturing.
This grant has allowed TFGUSA to incorporate additive manufacturing into our process by giving us access to the Markforged Mark Two, one of the most advanced industrial 3D printers in the world. Although we still employ traditional manufacturing and metal fabrication methods, additive manufacturing has begun shifting the manufacturing landscape exponentially.
What Is Additive Manufacturing?
Additive manufacturing, also known as 3D printing, is bringing a new level of efficiency and versatility to industrial manufacturing. Unlike traditional manufacturing methods that remove materials through processes such as machining, milling, and cutting, additive manufacturing produces products through the addition of materials layer by layer.
In simplest terms, a 3D printer utilizes a digital blueprint of an object to build it one layer at a time from a variety of different materials. In most cases, the process takes a fraction of the time—and cost—of traditional manufacturing methods.
The inventor Chuck Hall introduced the first 3D printer in the 1980s. However, manufacturers didn’t really begin making use of the rapid prototyping technology until 2009, when desktop versions of 3D printers hit the market.
Experts project additive manufacturing to grow at a brisk 15% annually through 2027, as demand for 3D printed parts for the automotive, medical, aerospace, and other industries skyrocket.
How Does Additive Manufacturing Work?
Additive manufacturing creates a solid product from a digital model using little more than powdered materials or wire filament. Most products fashioned by additive manufacturing are more durable, precise, and lightweight, and they’re faster to build than those created by traditional methods.
Unlike home and office printers that print in two dimensions, horizontal and vertical, 3D printers create objects by incorporating depth printing into the process. While early 3D printers were limited to using different plastics, modern additive manufacturing can make use of a wide range of materials including specialty materials like Kevlar and carbon fiber.
The process begins by creating a digital blueprint of the object you want to manufacture. You load the printer with the material, for example, plastic filament, wire, or a metal powder. The printer then uses an electron beam or a laser, called selective laser sintering (SLS) or power bed fusion, to heat and fuse the material for production.
As the printer scans the digital model, its print head reproduces the blueprint layer by layer until the object is complete. As the printer creates each layer of material, it cools it into a solid form, and each successive layer adheres to the previous one. Additive manufacturing can make almost any shape through this process with incredible precision.
Additive manufacturing focuses on the object’s design and functionality rather than its complexity. Traditional methods like casting and milling can’t equal 3D printing technology’s ability to reproduce complex geometries. Additive manufacturing also allows for almost unlimited design freedom, where a product’s complexity has a limited impact on production cost.
Typical Timelines For Additive Manufacturing
Unlike conventional methods, additive manufacturing requires few support tools and materials. Aside from a 3D printer, a digital blueprint (often a CAD—computer-aided design), and the material being used to form the product, it’s rare that any other products or materials are required. As a result, additive manufacturing significantly reduces the time and cost of manufacturing and rapid prototyping.
The 3D printing process can take between a half-hour and several days depending on:
- Volume, height, and footprint of the object
- Quantity of products
- Quality and capacity of the printer
Traditional manufacturing can take several weeks to several months to create products because they require timely processes like injection molding, the use of special tools, and machinery retooling. With 3D printing, TFGUSA can manufacture products on demand with drastically reduced lead times, dramatically reducing the time it takes to get products to market.
Additive Manufacturing Materials
3D printing most commonly uses plastic polymers in 3D printing. However, many other materials are now able to be used in the process.
Polymers and Thermoplastics
In either filament or powder form, plastic polymers are incredibly malleable, making them one of the most versatile materials used in 3D printing. Thermoplastics are a type of polymer that can be melted into a liquid form and remolded. Plastic is a leading material because of its flexibility, low cost, color options, water resistance, and ease of use.
Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) filament is a thermoplastic that is one of the most common 3D printing materials because it’s lightweight, highly durable, elastic, and shock-resistant. Polylactic acid (PLA) is another popular plastic that—unlike ABS—is biodegradable. Photopolymer resin, another popular plastic, changes properties when exposed to UV light, becoming stronger when heated.
Stainless steel, gold, silver, titanium are common types of metal used in 3D printing. Although metal materials are more expensive and less flexible than polymers, the material is strong, heat resistant, and facilitates electrical conductance. Titanium is the lightest and most robust additive manufacturing material and is frequently used in making products for the aerospace and medical industries.
Additive manufacturers have recently begun using ceramics in the production process. Ceramic materials can withstand high pressure, extreme temperatures, and corrosion, making them more durable than other materials. Ceramics also offer many color options and produce a unique glossy appearance.
The ability to use biochemicals in additive manufacturing is offering an extraordinary opportunity for medical advancements. Pharmaceutical companies are already using bioprinting—using living cells instead of plastics, metals, or ceramics—to produce medical therapies. Bioprinting is also being used to manufacture vascular stents.
Researchers are hopeful that bioprinting can be used to create human tissue, bone, and organs. Scientists have developed a 3D printing process prototype that shows promise in layering cells to manufacture live tissue for transplants. This process could result in saving hundreds of thousands of lives worldwide.
Composite materials are ones that are produced from more than one material that, when combined, have properties that neither of the original materials did. Three of the most common composite materials used in additive manufacturing are carbon fiber, fiberglass, and Kevlar.
The primary reason these materials are so strong, yet so lightweight, are the reinforcing fibers that they’re produced with. When lots of small fibers are bound together to produce larger structures, the loads can be dispersed along the lengths of all of the fibers. This means that these materials will have some of the highest strength-to-weight ratios available.
Additive Manufacturing Technology
The field of additive manufacturing is evolving rapidly. Industrial manufacturing accounts for almost 80% of all 3D printer usage. Industrial additive manufacturing is primarily focused on prototyping, designing, and producing parts and products for heavy industry.
At TFGUSA, we use technology powered by the Markforged Mark Two, one of the most powerful 3D printers available. Using a CAD drawing, the Markforged Mark Two can produce prototype objects in just a couple of hours—a great benefit for customers who need precise parts manufactured at low volume.
The Mark Two outperforms many other 3D printers by relying on continuous fiber strands—rather than chopped fibers—for maximum tensile strength. This process allows the Mark Two to produce strong and lightweight parts that can incorporate metal inserts. It offers high-resolution functionality with a build volume of 320 x 132 x 154 mm.
Advantages of Additive Manufacturing
Currently, additive manufacturing is complementing—rather than replacing—traditional methods. In general, additive manufacturing is an excellent alternative for companies that require rapid prototyping for smaller production runs. Some benefits of additive manufacturing include:
- Cost efficiency: Traditional manufacturing typically requires production on a massive scale to reduce the costs of production. Additive manufacturing costs remain the same regardless of quantity, making it an affordable option for businesses seeking lower quantities of a product.
- Lower tooling costs: Most 3D printing requires no unique tooling to produce a part. This fact can result in a considerable cost saving over traditional methods where retooling drives up material and labor expenses.
- Faster lead times: Additive manufacturing is a boon to supply chain management because its reduced production lead times result in lower inventory and related costs.
- Rapid prototyping: 3D printing technology can help you turn your ideas into useful products via rapid prototyping. It allows you to create, test, and revise products quickly and cheaply and, thus, get to market faster.
Applications for Additive Manufacturing
Additive manufacturing can be utilized to rapidly produce parts and components for almost any industry. For example, the aerospace and automotive industry increasingly are turning to additive manufacturing for lightweight, strong, and temperature-resistant parts.
When producing components for use in the aerospace industry, it’s important that they are lightweight, strong, and can resist both very hot and very cold temperatures. Additive manufacturing is ideal for rapidly creating parts with complex geometric designs such as blisks from materials such as titanium wire.
Additive manufacturing is also very popular within the healthcare industry. A wide range of companies are now investing heavily in 3D printing when it comes to the production of prosthetics, surgical implants, and the fabrication of other medical devices.
Automotive manufacturers are using materials such as aluminum, titanium, and a variety of polymers to produce a wide range of components including exhaust pipes, pumps, and even bumpers. We’re even starting to see additive manufacturing used in performance racing to produce parts in a matter of days that at one time would take months to create.
Use Additive Manufacturing For Your Next Prototype
At The Federal Group USA, we can leverage this innovative technology to help your business rapidly prototype and develop any number of parts and components. Using the Mark Two’s rapid prototyping capacity, you can quickly get through design, testing, and getting your product to market while your competitors wade through the sluggish, traditional manufacturing model.
The TFGUSA engineering team has over 40-years of experience in manufacturing, which sets us apart from our competitors. We work one-on-one with our customers to ensure that they understand all their options and give guidance on the best manufacturing process for their products. Contact The Federal Group USA at 800-759-2658 or online to learn more about additive manufacturing and how we can leverage 3D printing technology to expand your business.