If media reports about the future of additive manufacturing are to be believed, we'll all soon be designing our own coffee cups, glasses frames and trouser buttons and printing them using a 3D printer. Although additive manufacturing is still rarely employed for private use, it has been applied for many years in industry for the manufacture of prototypes or components in small batches. Its advantage lies in the fact that parts can be produced quickly, without tools and with no wastage, saving both time and money. Typical materials include plastics or metals, such as tool or stainless steel alloys or aluminium.
Constructed layer by layer
Each part is based on a 3D drawing created using a CAD program. The software of the additive manufacturing system (so-called because the components are produced by successively "adding" material) breaks this model down into many individual virtual layers. The part is produced by adding layer after layer, just as you would when building something with toy building bricks. Plastic or metal powder is added to the construction area. A laser melts the powder at points specified by the CAD model so that it forms a single unit. The next layer of powder is then added and melted. This process is repeated until the part is finished. After cooling, excess material is removed and the component can be used immediately.
Technology with potential
Additive manufacturing is one of the most commonly used manufacturing methods today. It is used to create, for example, custom products with complex structures or for the rapid manufacturing of prototypes. However, this technology still has a huge amount of untapped potential and could pave the way for custom mass production in the future. Numerous research projects are investigating optimisation options to make the quality of parts absolutely reliable and reproducible, which is essential in industrial series production.
You can see how the additive manufacturing process works in this film:
The Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research (TNO) is currently trying out initial solutions for continuous production using additive methods. Find out more about the project here