Over the last five years, two main advances have helped additive manufacturing (AM) evolve from a prototyping technology to a viable production method. The first is in material development, where manufacturers can now create parts not just with plastics, but metals and other advanced materials. The second is in the sheer capabilities of AM machines.
Additionally, improvements in materials have advanced machine capabilities, and vice-versa, continuously propelling the industry forward to the point where AM is fast, can work with a wide range of materials, and delivers high levels of accuracy. But the next AM leap may not be due to materials or machines, but rather reimagining what is possible.
Part Consolidation with Additive Manufacturing
A prime example of the emerging paradigm shift is redesigning an assembly made from multiple pieces so that it becomes a single part that can be manufactured using AM technology. For example, I’ve been working with a manufacturer on a power generator’s burner nozzle; the original part comprises five individual components, which we’re consolidating into a single unit that eliminates the need for assembly. And because we’re redesigning the part — as opposed to simply replicating it — we’ve been able to increase its strength and temperature threshold.
Moreover, this particular generator has around 30,000 parts, which presents a huge challenge: Trying to keep 30,000 parts in stock. So in addition to redesigning and consolidating parts, we’re also transitioning to a digital inventory. Instead of physical parts collecting dust in a warehouse, we’re developing a database of digital part designs. Using these files, additive manufacturing can support creating parts when they are needed much more quickly than traditional methods.
In traditional manufacturing, a part may require creating a mold and casting the part. Or it may be better to use CNC machining to grind, mill or drill the necessary features into the part, and perhaps weld or hand-assemble additional pieces to create what is needed. All of this takes time, labor and, at low volumes, considerable financial expense. Additive manufacturing can greatly reduce these resource drains by producing what you want, when you want it. Plus, the costs associated with maintaining physical inventory essentially disappears.
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