Additive Manufacturing for Shop Floors

Additive manufacturing, also known as 3D printing, delineates the layer-by-layer structuring of components using virtual 3D data. Dr Kristian Arntz, head of the Fraunhofer IPT's "Laser Material Processing" department, explains the challenges of additive technologies and what the Fraunhofer IPT can do to support companies that want to enter the market.

What are the most important characteristics that companies should consider when using additive manufacturing processes?

The layer-by-layer structuring allows for a very high geometric freedom: tree-like structures, hollow spaces or inlying grid structures can be generated by using additive processes, in order to manufacture light and durable components, for instance. However, the variety of materials, precision and surface quality of the components are relatively low, leading to a limited use. The efficiency of the processes depends on the size, material and geometry of the components. Simply put, the simpler and bigger the component, the less profitable is 3D printing. As soon as the required quantities increase, additive processes are clearly at a disadvantage. New developments are going to reduce this shortcoming, however, quantities in accordance with the automobile industry are hardly achievable. Also, eco-friendliness cannot clearly be varified since it requires a costly processing of the source materials and a high energy input after all.

Are additive processes suited for serial manufacturing at all?

The previously mentioned aspects already show that 3D printing should not be seen as a subsitute for conventional manufacturing but rather as an enhancement: The smart combination of manufacturing processes amongst each other as well as the integration of overlapping value chains represent the future. Here, the networking and adaptiveness of individual products are crucial. This can be clarified by using spare parts as an example since small and irregularly ordered quantities are predestined for 3D printing. Moreover, prefabricated products can be adjusted individually. Both yield new challenges for manufacturing - right up to autonomous, customer-oriented manufacturing units or funcitionalized standard components.  

What can the Fraunhofer IPT offer companies that are considering to integrate additive manufacturing into their production?

The Fraunhofer IPT already has an extensive knowledge of a variety of manufacturing process and is particularly proficient with a view to both their capabilities and limits. This competence enables us to advise companies on additive processes and whether or how they can be integrated into particular process chains. As a part of this, we take the entire value chain into account, evaluate the new process chains in the light of the already established ones and help with the selection of technologies. In the context of production technology, we always look at process chains in their entirety, including all the individual processes. Here, additive manufacturing processes are considered as a potentially beneficial element of the process chain design and optimization as opposed to an autonomous view of generative processes. That way we obtain a realistic image of our clients' enitre industrial manufacturing process chain and, consequently, are able to carry out a time-saving and cost-reducing integration of the additive processes right where they are being required on the shop floor.