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Scottish Plastics and Rubber Association Scottish Plastics and Rubber Association

Additive Manufacturing Technologies: A New Approach to Manufacturing

Automotive prototype produced by Objet Polyjet Technology

A report has been produced on how Additive Manufacturing (AM) Technologies (stereolithography, selective laser sintering, 3-D printing etc) have the potential to change our approach to manufacturing complex shapes. The full report, produced by the AM Special Interest Group of the Technology Strategy Board (AM SIG), is available to members of the Materials KTN.

Most of the AM techniques involve selective addition of layer upon layer of material to build up a complex shape. Compared to conventional manufacture of 3-D shapes with polymers (moulding, casting and machining), AM Technologies are digitally controlled, do not require a mould and use less material. However the machine tools are still being developed and the cost of material is high.

The AM approach fits better with high value added manufacture than with mass production. AM has applications in different parts of the production cycle, such as prototyping, tooling and part production. The main attraction is the ease of producing highly complex shapes, with more design freedom than with moulding and the elimination of expensive tooling. AM helps to compress the supply chain and shorten lead times to market. However the report warns that AM is not the panacea to all manufacturing problems and there is a tendency to over-sell its potential.

Although the technologies are controlled mostly by USA and German companies which market the systems, the UK is one of the leading sources of AM related knowledge and research activity, with 24 UK universities and 57 UK companies involved, some for 25 years. Over £90 million of public and private funding is being invested in AM research and technology transfer.

To rationalise discussion on AM Technologies, the AM SIG has provided a helpful categorisation of techniques. As far as plastics manufacturing is concerned the relevant categories are:

1. Powder Bed
Selective Laser Sintering.......... 3D Systems (USA)
Selective Laser Sintering.......... EOS (Germany)

2. Material Jetting
Polyjet.................................... Objet (Israel)
Projet.....................................3D Systems (USA)
Ink Jetting.............................. LUXeXcel (Netherlands)

3. Binder Jetting
3D printing................................Voxel Jet (Germany)

4. Filament Feed
Fusion Deposition Modelling........ Stratasys (USA)
Fusion Deposition Modelling........ Maker Bot (USA)
Fusion Deposition Modelling........ Delta Microfactory (China)
Fusion Deposition Modelling........ 3D Systems (USA)

5. Resin Vat
Stereolithography..................... 3D Systems (USA)
Digital Light Processing.............. Envisiontec (Germany)
Digital Light Processing.............. Asiga (USA)
SLA/DLP.................................. DWS (Italy)

Currently AM Technologies activity is predominantly for prototyping and models but there has been some limited applications in product manufacture, with aerospace, healthcare and creative industries being the main focus.

The main drivers for AM Technologies are increased design freedom and supply chain efficiency although product customisation is important for automotive, healthcare and creative industries sectors and efficiency of materials usage and energy consumption for the aerospace sector.

The report identifies a number of technological, commercial and educational barriers to application of AM Technologies as a new approach to manufacturing.

(i) Component costs are high compared to conventional technologies
(ii) The process is slow
(iii) Materials are expensive
(iv) Depreciation costs are high
(v) There are size constraints
(vi) AM processes are not robust enough
(vii) Process inconsistency (batch to batch variation)
(viii) Post processing operations are often required
(ix) Limited choice of materials (eg colour)
(x) Parts have a limited shelf life
(xi) Intellectual Property is held outside the UK
(xii) Business models are not fully developed

The report carries out a SWOT analysis of how the UK can drive forward AM technologies. Among the conclusions are:

Strengths:
well established AM community in the UK
world class design capability in the UK
process innovation culture in the UK
AM is suited to high value, low volume manufacture

Weaknesses
limited number of industrial supporters
current supply chain is not fully engaged
cost remains poor in comparison to other manufacturing
UK end users are dependent on overseas technologies

Opportunities
global marketplace for AM technologies
multi-sectoral applications
multiple business drivers
technology suited to flexible manufacturing

Threats
overseas ownership of AM intellectual property
research centred on overseas technology
competing manufacturing processes
entry of other countries into R&D activity
destabilisation of Eurozone makes UK an expensive location for R&D and manufacture

The report concludes by suggesting several strategic options open to the UK:

Development of new machine platforms for AM
Consolidation of UK research excellence in AM Technologies
Stimulation of new business models for manufacture

Report by Charlie Geddes, SPRA Hon Secretary, July 2012

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