The future of additive manufacturing

by Jamie Flinchbaugh on 06-17-13

Take some raw materials. Put a lot of energy into forming them into a part of a certain size. Then remove some of to end up with the part you need.

That seems like the very definition of waste. Yet it is how most things get made today.

To be fair, it’s how we’ve done things for centuries, and millenniums. How do you make an spear tip? Take a stone and remove some of it until you’re left with a spear tip. Until you can form your own stones, there is just no other way.

Additive manufacturing is the process of making the final part you want, usually out of loose base material. Additive manufacturing has had a very slow and painful path to maturity. The question is, are we reaching the end of that path and additive manufacturing is what it’s going to be? Or are we 3-5 technological breakthroughs from realizing additive manufacturing’s true potential?

GE has made the kind of decision that becomes the forcing function for such breakthroughs. They have decided that they aren’t just going to use 3-D printing to make prototype parts, they are going to use it for volume finished parts. This decision led MIT’s Technology Review to name additive manufacturing one of its 10 Breakthrough Technologies for 2013. One of the benefits for GE is lighter parts that leads to more fuel efficient planes. When people push the limits of the technology, especially in ways that require you to keep up and to spend money, some of the breakthroughs tend to be driven.

Breakthroughs are happening in many levels. Nanscribe recently developed a tabletop 3-D microprinter that is capable of creating complicated structures 100 times faster than the current technology.

But the limits of such thinking is not just for powered metals to be ultrasonically welded together. So much of our lives is built around an inefficient combination of destruction and building. Want a table? First, grow a tree. Cut it down. Shape the wood. Bolt, screw, and glue it together. Viola! Now you have a table. Some leading edge research into cellular engineering has demonstrated that it is possible to program cells. They’re actually already programmed, but in this case, programmed to grow a tree. But if we could reprogram them, instead of growing a tree to make a table, couldn’t we just grow a table. Imagine all the waste removed if this were possible. And it is feasible, just not yet possible.

Let’s hope that as additive manufacturing advances, people come up with better uses that the whistles and dolls the gang from Big Bang Theory made (with bonus jokes mocking both additive manufacturing and manufacturing jobs moving to China):


  • We are still a couple of breakthroughs away from competitive additive manufacturing, but eventually it will happen. Printing time and maximum workpiece size are not good enough yet, and neither is durability (on many of the techniques at least). When those are solved, the revolution will begin, but it will still not be overnight, because there is a whole lot of capital invested in machinery around the world.

    The first parts that are produced with these new technologies are small parts with difficult shapes, one-off parts, and prototypes. Perhaps the biggest thing about additive manufacturing is the ability to create shapes that cannot be accomplished even with a multi-axis machinery, which is exactly what GE is going for to reduce aircraft weight.

    I have already seen both prototypes and one-off parts used in commercial solutions, but GE is the first company I know of to go for real volumes.

    One trend to note regarding this is combining additive and subtractive manufacturing in the same machine. Matsuura, for example, offers a metal laser sintering hybrid milling machine called Lumex. I am not yet sure whether this is a transition period or the way of things to come. Either way, it is an exciting time for manufacturing!

    Ville Kilkku July 7, 2013 at 2:58 pm