Jared Kosters

I’ve been doing a lot of work in the area of additive manufacturing (also referred to as 3-D printing) recently due to our current work with Penn State University on the Consortium for Additive Manufacturing Materials (CAMM). CAMM’s efforts focus on developing new materials that are specifically tailored for additive manufacturing processes. While we have written about additive manufacturing before (“Disruptive Innovation: 3-D Printing” and “How Materials Science Improves Our Lives: Printing Body Parts”), this post provides a crash course in this key subject matter area. In today’s syllabus: answers to frequently asked questions about the basics of additive manufacturing, why it’s important, and why you should be excited about it.

“What is it?” The word “additive” refers to the manufacture of an object by means of successively adding layers of a material, including metals, plastics, ceramics, paper, advanced composites, biological tissue, and yes – even food. This addition of material is distinctly different from “subtractive” manufacturing methods, including drilling, boring, and milling of bulk materials, which rely on the removal of material from a part until you have a final object. There are many types of additive manufacturing approaches; below is an image of a fused deposition modeling (FDM) machine extruding layers of polymer material onto an object.

Waag Society, Flickr

Waag Society, Flickr

“What can be made using additive manufacturing?” The more important question is: “What do you want to make?” The White House had exactly this attitude when they invited artists and designers from across the nation to design 3-D printed ornaments in the first-ever White House 3-D Printed Ornament Challenge. The following diverse applications have also been demonstrated with additive manufacturing techniques, showng the  technology’s potential to create almost anything:

  • Airplane and automobile engines
  • Dental crowns
  • Art
  • Computers
  • Jewelry
  • Houses
  • Food
  • Kitchen appliances
  • Tools
  • Mobile phones
  • Athletic equipment
  • Prosthetic body parts
  • Orthopedic implants
  • Human organs

“Why is additive manufacturing important?” Additive manufacturing technologies will revolutionize the manufacturing landscape by providing the following benefits over traditional processing approaches:

  • Printing only what is needed means less material waste and therefore lower production costs.
  • Additive processes will use less than half of the energy that typical “subtractive” processes use.
  • Additive manufacturing has fewer production steps compared with traditional processes, and parts can be printed as soon as you have a 3-D model – just send it straight to your printer!
  • Fewer production steps combined with the ability to quickly and cheaply manufacture functional prototypes means less time to market than traditional processes.
  • The price to own a 3-D printer will continue to drop. Easier access means more innovation can be expected from a bigger user base.

“Who is contributing to the advancement of additive manufacturing technologies?” Let’s review some of the efforts, in addition to the CAMM project we’re currently working on, that are advancing the field:

  • Previously known as the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute (NAMII), America Makes is the first of more than a dozen planned manufacturing institutes proposed by President Obama in 2012 to accelerate the adoption of additive manufacturing technologies and increase domestic manufacturing competitiveness. Over 100 companies are collaborating on projects that advance product design, materials, processing technologies, and the next-generation workforce.
  • Operated by the Edison Welding Institute (EWI), the Additive Manufacturing Consortium (AMC) specifically focuses on advancing metal-based additive manufacturing processes.
  • The Additive Manufacturing Users Group (AMUG) is a consortium consisting of owners and operators of commercial additive manufacturing technologies dedicated to exchanging information and proposing solutions to advance additive manufacturing process technologies.

“Okay, now I want to print some stuff. What if I can’t afford a 3-D printer?” At the time of this blog post, the cheapest 3-D printer that I could find online was $500 while most other models were more than $2,500. Since 3-D printers are still considered a luxury to own, the alternative is to check out service providers such as i.materialise. These businesses will take your 3-D model and ship the printed object directly to you. Given that calculators, computers, and standard paper printers were once priced at tens of thousands of dollars, it is reasonable to assume that household 3-D printers will follow the same path of ubiquitousness and affordability. One day, it may be the norm to print a household object rather than to make a trip out to the hardware store. Take a moment to think about it, and maybe you can come up with a small business idea in 3-D printing that will lead the charge toward its mainstream adoption.