Components building by 3D printing
Additive manufacturing (AM), also known as 3D printing, has evolved rapidly in a short period of time. It seems only yesterday that it was producing novelty plastic trinkets and toys. Today, highly sophisticated products like medical implants, lenses for LEDs, dental devices, and fuel nozzles for jet engines can be successfully 3D printed. 

And we’re not taking just one-offs.  AM is creating durable, safe products in moderate to large quantities, for sale to real customers to use in real applications. This fast pace of development is opening up new vistas of design, materials and manufacturing, and is extremely interesting for the composites industry.


The ABC of AM 

AM involves making a three-dimensional object by adding ultra-thin layers of material one by one, following a design expressed in digital format. As AM consists of “growing” the part in a single piece from the bottom up, it avoids the need to manufacture several components and assemble them into a larger structure. This removes the need for welding and machining and eliminates potential weak points at interfaces, while also reducing weight. It enables engineers to design components with complex internal structures that would be expensive, if not impossible, to make otherwise. It also leads to the faster construction of prototypes, which can accelerate innovation.

A key reason behind the growth of the technology is that the range of printable materials continues to expand. No longer is AM confined to basic plastics and photosensitive resins, but now includes glass, ceramics, various metals and metal alloys, cement and new thermoplastic composites infused with carbon nanotubes and fibers. 

In parallel, costs are coming down. The direct costs of producing goods by AM can still be higher than by conventional manufacturing methods, but the greater flexibility afforded by AM means that total costs can be substantially lower. However, because AM is still relatively expensive, it is currently best suited for highly complex components, such as those comprising several pieces, which can be 3D printed as a single item, or where extra functionality, and therefore value, can be added.

For example, it is already feasible for every single part of a wind turbine to be manufactured by AM. Three aspects of AM are especially interesting for the wind industry: the ability to include internal channels; make lightweight structures; and integrate functions. The 3D printing of internal channels in the gear is actually something that can only be done cost-effectively using AM. Off-the-shelf pressure sensors can then be used to monitor pressure in the capillaries and give early warn of fatigue cracks.


Carbon fiber in 3D printing

Fiber-reinforced plastics (FRP) are gaining increased attention for their potential use in AM to enhance the mechanical strength and elasticity of manufactured parts. These composite materials can match the strength of many metals, but at much lighter weight. In particular, the addition of carbon fibers to plastic resins is becoming a widely used strategy to enhance the mechanical properties of 3D printed parts.
A number of companies have commercialized 3D printers and printable materials in order to produce carbon fiber-reinforced composite parts used in racing cars, drones, high performance sporting equipment and many other applications that require lightweight but strong materials to boost product performance.
Two main 3D printing processes are used to create functional parts using carbon fiber reinforced materials as feedstock: Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) and Selective Laser Sintering (SLS). FDM builds plastic parts using layer-by-layer extrusion of heated filament materials, whereas SLS fabricates parts by building successive layers made out of laser sintered powder materials. 


Rapid repair? 

Also interesting to consider is the potential impact of AM on the supply chain. Not only will AM mean fewer sub-components, but it will also be possible to design the part in one place and then 3D print it in different locations, close to where it is needed and on demand. There is interesting potential here for spare parts and repair. It could be imagined that a 3D printer could be set up close to a wind farm, for example, to produce spare parts for a wind turbine on demand, reducing cost and downtime. And who knows, maybe in the future, AM could produce large components such as blades on-site, avoiding the transportation difficulties.


Global leader is Taiwan-based

In 2016, according to CONTEXT, the IT market research company, worldwide shipments of 3D printers rose +32%, driven by increased shipments of personal/desktop 3D printers. Over the year, the number of industrial/professional printers shipped globally fell by -10% while sales of personal/desktop printers increased by 34%. 96% of these printers were priced at under $1,000. In the personal/desktop 3D printer segment, Taiwan’s XYZ printing remains the global leader. Its market share has grown to 25%, with 80,902 units sold in 2016. 


The future is already here

The general prognostication is that within the next five years, fully automated, high-speed, large-quantity and economical AM systems will be available to produce standardized parts. Due to the great flexibility of those systems, customization in many product categories will accelerate, further eating into conventional mass production’s market share.
Smart business leaders in the composites industry aren’t sitting around waiting for all the details. They clearly see the opportunities that AM is presenting them, and are already making their moves – layer by layer by layer – to take advantage of this great new technology. 

Written by Denzil Walton

Denzil Walton is a technical copywriter, editor and conference reporter. He has over 30 years’ experience writing on a variety of industrial and high-tech topics.


Return to JEC Asia Business Review #9