3D printing makes its move into production

When NASA's Juno satellite blasted off for Saturn, the 3D printed parts in its final assembly represented just one small step toward manufacturer Lockheed Martin's goal to eventually build an entire spacecraft using additive manufacturing technology. The launch also signified one giant leap toward the use of 3D printing in the aerospace firm's manufacturing processes here on earth.

Other businesses are adopting 3D printing in production, too. IT, in response, is buckling up for the ride.

The lighter, lower-cost 3D printed parts used in Juno helped to prove that additive manufacturing technology, which builds objects by applying materials in successive layers, was ready to move beyond just prototyping. "The parts performed beautifully," says Slade Gardner, a fellow for advanced manufacturing and materials in Lockheed Martin's Space Systems division. But they were just "proto-parts" for one satellite.

This bracket was one of the 3D-printed parts in Lockheed's Juno satellite. Source: Lockheed.

Now the aerospace giant is preparing to use 3D printing processes to manufacture production parts for other aircraft and spacecraft. "We're validating the process for production, and we're on target to complete those activities within the next few years -- maybe sooner," Gardner says.

Curtis Carson, head of research and technology for industrial systems in the Manufacturing Engineering Centre of Competence at Airbus, says the aircraft manufacturer has already begun using 3D printing to produce a seat belt mold as a spare part for the A310 jet, after the subcontractor that was manufacturing the mold went bankrupt.

Airbus has already begun using 3D printing to produce a seat belt mold as a spare part for the A310 jet. Source: Airbus.

And it plans to start using 3D printed plastic parts for the A350 aircraft by early 2015. "Even with small components we'll see around 50% weight savings and a cost savings of 60 to 70% on production parts," he says.

Traditionally, 3D printing has been used mostly for rapid prototyping -- to build early design concepts and prototypes to assess "form, fit and function," says Terry Wohlers, president of Wohlers Associates, a 3D printing consultancy. "The next frontier for 3D printing is actual manufacturing, producing parts that go into the final product."

Developing a digital tapestry

3D printing is part of the new "digital tapestry," the end-to-end digitization of the manufacturing process from initial design and production to spare parts, and IT needs to be ready to support that, says Steve Betza, corporate director for advanced manufacturing and development at Lockheed Martin.

"We actively partnered with our CIO in the creation of a digital tapestry for manufacturing," Betza says. That tapestry includes computer-aided design and visualization tools, data management systems, and MRP and ERP systems. All of those must be connected to tablet computers and the Internet of Things on the manufacturing floor -- including the company's industrial 3D printers.

To successfully make the transition from prototypes to finished goods, 3D printing needs to go from building shapes with limited functionality to meeting more demanding manufacturing requirements.

But there's even more to it than that, says Gardner. Lockheed Martin Space Systems executive vice president Rick Ambrose set a company goal to manufacture an entire satellite using 3D printing technology, but getting there means maturing design, materials, operations and manufacturing procedures that are very different from established standards, Gardner explains.

As to the state of 3D printing technology and materials, Gardner says, "Nothing is holding us back. It's simply a matter of putting in the time and doing the engineering."

"The design principles, shapes and forms that work with subtractive manufacturing are completely different with additive 3D printing," says Airbus' Carson. To take full advantage of 3D printing in product manufacturing, Airbus has had to rethink design methods and principles, and develop and implement new standards for 3D printing as well as the skills sets to use them. "For manufacturing using 3D printing, there are not a lot of standards out there," says Jon Cobb, vice president at 3D printer vendor Stratasys.

The vertical markets leading the charge to manufacturing -- including aerospace, medical and dental -- all build products that fit into 3D printing's sweet spot: Low-volume, high-cost parts that are complex to build. The best fit, says Cobb, is for applications "where the volume is low or where change is frequent" -- that is, in situations where subtractive manufacturing is least effective.

For now, build times remain a concern. Eventually, Cobb expects improvements in Stratasys' fused deposition modeling (FDM) thermoplastic 3D printing technology to increase in speed by two to five times.

But ultimately it may not be FDM or any current additive manufacturing technology that improves build times to the levels needed to support higher manufacturing volumes. "Three to ten years down the road there will be new technologies that change the way we do 3D printing," he says. While Cobb said Stratasys is actively working on new technologies, he would not elaborate or offer any specifics.

Parts on demand

"As prototype designs mature to full production, Lockheed Martin will partner with its customers to explore 3D-printed replacement parts on demand," Betza says. The use of just-in-time printing of spare parts could eventually disrupt the entire distribution supply chain, says Cobb.

Some replacement parts will be stored not in warehouses but as files on websites. Customers may then download parts files for a fee, and print them on their own 3D printers, at a big-box store or through a service bureau. "There's a whole new payment structure to be managed, and that's a big component for IT," Betza says. And as parts turn into electronic files, that intellectual property must be managed and protected as it's accessed by or transported to customers and business partners.

The process of migrating to 3D-printed parts will likely happen organically: 3D-printed parts will be available to replace those that were manufactured using 3D printing in the first place. But the business case for going back and redesigning, say, existing injection molded parts solely for the sake of just-in-time 3D-printed spares will be more difficult to cost-justify.

A better build

Advances in materials used in 3D printing are also widening additive manufacturing's appeal. Oxford Performance Materials uses 3D printing to build cranial, face and spine implants using a proprietary, FDA-approved thermoplastic called PEKK. The material is bio-compatible, has the strength of aluminum and is designed to encourage adjacent bone to grow into it in order to fuse it to the rest of the cranium or other bone structures.

Oxford Performance Materials (OPM) claims that this FDA-approved cranial implant, built using 3D printing techniques and a proprietary thermoplastic material called PEKK, is the largest cranial prosthesis ever implanted into a human being. Source: OPM.

The traditional material used for these types of prosthetic implants, titanium, is stiff and can wear down adjacent bone over time, leading to the need to have joints reworked after a number of years. The 3D-printed, thermoplastic prosthesis is more compatible. "You get a perfect fit, lower unit cost and reduced time in the operating room," says Oxford Performance Management (OPM) CEO Scott DeFelice.

The company recently manufactured one of the largest cranial implants ever used. "It looks like a football helmet," DeFelice says. Building the prosthesis out of titanium would have required assembling it from three or four pieces and fusing those together, but with 3D printing OPM could manufacture it as a single part.

That quality also makes 3D printing attractive in the aerospace industry, where weight matters. "If you have a complex assembly you can reduce the parts count dramatically," says Carson. And because it can add material only where needed for structural support, Airbus has been able to come up with what Carson calls "bionic" shapes.

3D printing processes have also helped Lockheed Martin develop unique stainless steel alloys using nano-particle additives, says Gardner. The 3D printing process, which involves melting successive layers of powdered metal, creates a rapidly cooling "weld puddle" that locks in micro-structures that wouldn't be possible using conventional foundry techniques. "This has implications for the entire alloy industry," he says. It may make ships more resistant to corrosion, bridges more tolerant of damage, skyscrapers taller and safer, and pressure vessels better able to perform, as well as improving the thermal and electrical performance of spacecraft, according to Gardner.

The speed barrier

With speed requirements measured in minutes rather than hours, and extreme high-volume requirements, Ford Motor Co. can't use 3D printing to manufacture production parts. But as 3D printer materials have improved in performance and durability, Ford has increased its use in several areas. For example, it uses 3D printing processes to make the tooling used to create production parts.

"Tooling is very expensive, so we're finding a nice benefit from that," says Harold Sears, 3D printing technical expert. Ford also uses 3D printers to build intake manifold prototypes that can be tested for up to 100,000-mile cycles. A 3D-printed manifold prototype costs $3,000 to build over four days -- versus $500,000 and four months using traditional manufacturing methods.

Ford used a 3D printing process to create a sand-cast mold used to produce cast-metal parts, including this one for Ford's 2.7-liter EcoBoost V6 cylinder block core, used in the 2015 F-150 truck. Source: Ford.

Ford also uses the technology to build "bridging parts" that can be included in nonproduction vehicle assembly until conventionally manufactured parts are available, and as a way to manufacture parts made out of more than one material in a single step. For example, a handle that includes both hard plastic and soft rubber components would usually require a two-step process when using conventional manufacturing techniques.

Like Lockheed Martin, Ford is looking at using 3D printing to produce some replacement parts on demand. "Do we just keep the electronic data for that part and produce it as needed? You'll see a lot more of that in the future," Sears says. And he hopes to find low-volume applications where his team can do 3D-printer-optimized designs that reduce weight and cost of the final product.

But, he adds, the materials are still expensive, they still have a way to go to be able to mimic the material properties of today's production parts, and engineers aren't used to designing for additive manufacturing. "It could take years for people to become proficient and do the difficult geometry," he says.

But the accessibility of low-cost desktop 3D printers on which engineers can experiment, coupled with new engineering recruits fresh out of school who are already familiar with 3D design and build concepts, is helping to accelerate that process. "Our newest generation of engineers and designers has grown up thinking in three dimensions," says Betza. By providing access to desktop 3D printers, Gardner adds, Lockheed Martin is able to "bring this capability forward to hone skills and build confidence."

At Ford, Sears is content for now to make parts that are more usable in prototype applications. Most of that activity is self-contained, with little IT involvement. "But in the future there will be a lot more involvement if models lend themselves to downloading a data file and printing it on your own 3D printer."

The 3D-printed plastic tool helps install pipes in an Airbus aircraft. The tools are strong and also less likely to scratch the objects being installed, the company says. Source: Airbus

Airbus is also using 3D printed thermoplastics to create tools to aid in assembly, such as drilling guides, jigs and a simple hand tool to install hydraulic pipes into an aircraft. "Tooling on the manufacturing floor is currently one the largest growth areas" for fused deposition modeling, says Cobb.

IT end game

So what does it all mean for IT? As 3D printing becomes a disruptive technology in design and manufacturing throughout the supply chain, IT will be a key enabler. "The CIO will be absolutely critical to the success of advanced manufacturing in the enterprise," Betza says.

"When you go from prototype printing to printing of high-value, critical items, the IT environment must be more robust in terms of security and the quality of systems," says DeFelice. "You're going to see complex integrations of hardware and software that interface with ERP, with quality systems and logistics. There are a host of new problems that need to be solved by IT that haven't been looked at yet."

CIOs should respond by embracing engineering and manufacturing as a core part of their mission -- and starting a dialog, says Betzer. "IT needs to be an intimate partner with those two disciplines for the enterprise to be successful."

This article, 3D printing makes its move into production, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

Robert L. Mitchell is a national correspondent for Computerworld. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/rmitch, or email him at rmitchell@computerworld.com.

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This story, "3D printing makes its move into production" was originally published by Computerworld .

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