The plate slowly rises out of the build cylinder, revealing the initial contours of eight objects, each just under 15 centimeters tall. “Those are guide vanes,” says Christoph Hauck, managing director of MBFZ Toolcraft in Georgensgmünd, Germany. They are used in the energy sector and in aeronautics. What’s special about these particular vanes is that they were printed instead of being cast. For several hours, a laser melting machine applied consecutive layers of gray powdered nickel alloy, intermittently melting them with a laser beam.
Hauck is fascinated by the technology. Yet for him and his around 380 employees, the work doesn’t really get started until after the automatic printing process, also known as additive manufacturing (AM), is completed. Now the supporting structures must be removed: small supports beneath the components that hold the objects in place during printing and dissipate heat. They prevent overhanging areas from collapsing. As important as they are during the printing process, they’re just as superfluous afterwards. CNC machining centers take on part of the tedious work, but at other times, employees have to use pliers and files to remove them.
This piecework annoys Hauck since it means delays and costs money. “A lot of development work still needs to be completed here,” he says. He hopes that parameter optimization will drastically reduce the number of supporting structures or that robots will be able to complete the work. He can also imagine dissolving them with liquid solutions.
However, quite a lot of time may pass before Hauck’s wishes come true. Three-dimensional printing is still stuck somewhere between digital high-tech production and hobbyist handicraft. Enthusiasts in private garage workshops and million-dollar production lines set up according to Industry 4.0 standards are both equally part of this technological revolution. In all of this, manufacturers are compensating for the lack of standards, experience and certifications by using self-developed process guidelines and quality controls.
Revolution in a Holding Pattern
Certification could potentially help in the case of Hauck’s support structures, assisting not only with mapping the printing process through to the finished blank, but also in post-processing. “Printer manufacturers have focused especially on better lasering and layering processes and have neglected post-processing,” Hauck explains. “3D printing is still at square one with respect to certifications and standards.”
More than thirty years after its birth, 3D printing—like any emerging technology—is at a crossroads. Just like the first automobile had to compete against horse-drawn carriages, and light bulbs against gas lighting, now 3D printing must prove itself against established processes such as lathing, milling and casting. The question is whether it can rise to become the new standard with the assistance of certification and testing guidelines and displace traditional techniques, or if it will remain a niche process for specialized products.
The technology has enormous potential. Just four years ago, the estimated worldwide revenues for the segment were 2.6 billion euros. According to forecasts by the consulting firm Deloitte, this figure is expected to rise to 17.5 billion euros by 2020. As a study by PwC has found, the biggest growth potential lies unrealized in the aerospace industry, medical technology and the automotive sector. Retailers are also hoping customized products will bring growth.
The number of possible applications and materials has been increasing for years. At the same time, customers’ goals are shifting. Until now, 3D printing has mainly been used for building prototypes or replacement parts. In these areas using it made sense because the parts were difficult to produce and often had to be made by hand. “Currently, additive manufacturing is increasingly moving away from this prototype stage and becoming interesting for mass production as well,” says TÜV SÜD Head of Additive Manufacturing Gregor Reischle. Reischle has been the innovation manager responsible for setting up the AM specialist field for about a year now. The advantages speak for themselves: resource savings, streamlined production processes, rapid availability.
Yet the crucial step to serial production still presents huge challenges for manufacturers and suppliers. To be able to continue meeting the high quality and safety standards demanded by customers in the future, standards must be defined for materials, production processes and end products. “We’ll need uniform curricula for the newly created job profiles,” Reischle says. “Definitions for production conditions, quality standards for the raw materials and testing under everyday conditions are also just as important.”