In just a few short years, additive manufacturing (AM) has jumped from a niche market (putting it lightly) to a serious consideration for just about any part imaginable. However, figuring out if the process is a good fit can be difficult without some assistance.
Fortunately, EOS, a global technology and quality leader for high-end AM solutions has established Additive Minds, a consultative service that assists customers in determining what can be produced, the cost, the amount of time it will require and if there will be any value add.
Benjamin Haller, application development consultant at EOS, led a webinar recently that covers exactly what the Additive Minds group brings to the table. Essentially, they are employed to help interested parties determine whether AM is a process worth consideration.
Finding the right application is typically the first step in adopting the AM process, which the Additive Minds team is tasked to help customers with. The next step is to develop the application, which includes redesigning certain components, but also developing process parameters for certain applications. Next is to start production, either using internal systems or a third-party provider. Last is to certify the production and scale it globally in additional facilities, if applicable.
Benjamin Haller, application development consultant at EOS, assists customers in determining the effectiveness of producing parts through the additive manufacturing process.
Haller stresses how important it is to select the right application before simply investing in AM technology. He says, “focused learning – focusing on the most important aspects of additive manufacturing” is key. He also says that understanding the learning curve involved will benefit the overall process. Essentially, when a comprehensive game plan is put in place, the path to full adoption is, inevitably, smoother.
“By only focusing on the most important aspects for your company, you can reduce complexity,” he continues. “And, you can identify, ahead of time, the key people that need to be trained based on the applications and the areas you want to focus on.”
Selecting the right application runs parallel to earning a “proof of concept.” Simply put, this includes making sure the applications are feasible for the AM process.
“Identifying the right application allows you to gain a quick proof of concept,” Haller notes. “It helps you to understand the opportunities and limitations of today’s additive manufacturing. But it also allows you to outline realistic parts, meeting technical and economic requirements to start.”
By selecting the application first, AM adopters will be better equipped to devise a clear roadmap based on the product and current market dynamics. What is viable today might not be viable in the future.
“You’re not only looking at the role that additive manufacturing plays in today’s business,” Haller says, “but also in three to five years.”
He recommends companies ask themselves questions, such as which area they plan to use AM. And, is it for prototypes, tooling, serial production, spare parts and aftersales, or a completely different area?
During the webinar, 65 percent of participants responded that they would use the technology for prototyping. However, Haller’s experience over the last three years has been that the focus for most manufacturers has turned from prototyping to other areas, including serial production.
To help determine the right application for AM, the Additive Minds service takes a customer through a list of assessments to determine if AM is right for the part. The assessments focus on technical fit, which involves determining if the part material is available and if the AM process meets the requirements of the application.
A common barrier to AM in regard to technical fit is, coincidentally, size. Build size is an issue as metal AM machines themselves are limited in size; currently, industrially proven systems are built to handle materials no larger than 400 mm in all three dimensions.
Quality remains important, which is another assessment that Additive Minds helps customers determine. In fact, Haller says quality is often the most critical technical component of the assessment for the majority of his customers.
“It’s typical to ask customers what are the most critical requirements of their parts,” he says. “First, you want to look at material properties – tensile strength or hardness – and geometry, such as requirements regarding tolerances and surface finish.”
If the part is being used in a critical environment, it might need to be certified, which adds another quality element to consider. Haller advises that parts used in a less critical environment are a better place to start.
An economic fit
The complexity of the part helps determine if AM is a smart option. “As we say in additive manufacturing, complexity comes for free,” Haller jokes.
For complex applications, AM has a clear advantage. Non-complex parts can often be completed at a less expensive rate with conventional manufacturing technologies. However, as the complexity ramps up, so does the price per unit under traditional manufacturing. If laid out on a chart, at some point, the two processes meet at the same price point.
However, there is more to consider than just the cost per unit. For example, pre-processing involves data preparation, job preparation and system setup, all of which have costs associated with them.
Then there are printing costs, which are the largest “cost blocks,” Haller says, including the cost of the material, the actual printing system and consumables costs. Post-processing work, such as stress relief and heat treatment and removing the part from the base plate, also represents additional costs.
“When comparing costs,” Haller adds, “it’s really important to consider costs along the whole value chain and even the total cost of ownership of a certain component.”
While it’s no secret that AM can be more expensive than traditional manufacturing, there is value to be leveraged, including in the lifecycle phase of an application – shortening product development time while optimizing manufacturing processes. Part performance can be increased as can the product lifetime.
Furthermore, lead times and company image can get a value boost by utilizing AM. But, for some, freedom of design might be the biggest value add.
“With additive manufacturing, we always talk about two main advantages,” Haller says. “The first one is the freedom of design – you can now build very complex geometries. You can use it to integrate different functions into a certain component, and you can use it to customize different components. All of this allows you to build completely new and complex designs.”
For example, healthcare-related products, such as patient-specific medical applications are possible with AM. Combining complex geometries, customization and functional integration produces a “very innovative additive manufacturing part,” Haller says.
As for the second advantage, Haller says AM offers the idea of “freedom of production.” This is evident in that the process offers flexible production volume, flexible production time and flexible production location options.
“This enables you to run very small and economic production runs, so now you can build one part or a thousand parts at the same part cost,” Haller explains. “You can use additive manufacturing to change your production strategy from local to global.
“You can use it change from ‘just in time’ to ‘on-demand,’” he continues. “And now, you can go from building the same component over and over again to building many different components and applications in the same build job.”
Technical and economic considerations help determine whether a customer should use traditional or additive manufacturing processes to produce parts.
Haller’s team uses what they refer to as the “AM Score Card.” On the left side of the card are components of the technical fit, including the size of the part, the material used to make it and the quality requirements.
On the right side are components of the economic fit, including the complexity of the part, cost and value add. A score is given to each component, so if it’s found that a part’s size is not compatible with AM, there would be no need to evaluate the materials and quality components.
A part can look quite unattractive on areas of the score card, yet still be a good fit for AM. For example, it could turn out that complexity is low and cost is high, but a significant value add can turn the tables.
“You can do a valuation for a high number of parts and especially for very diverse parts,” he says. “Really look at different ideas from different departments. Look at polymer and metal parts if you think that’s possible to get a very broad picture.”