Where is the additive manufacturing revolution?

Materials World magazine
1 Dec 2015

Composites remain confined to specialist use. Khai Trung Le finds out why at the UK's largest engineering trade show, in Birmingham. 

The anticipation of change was palpable at Advanced Engineering UK. But companies still await the disruption the composites and additive manufacturing industries have promised. It is no surprise that many of the open forums at Advanced Engineering UK sought to define the changes to be seen.

A spokesperson from Lucintel, filling in for absent CEO Dr Sanjay Mazumdar, delivered the talk Emerging Innovations in Composites, exploring the variety of current and future applications of composites, as well as predicting where growth may be possible.

While specialist industries, including aerospace and Formula One, have been working with composites since the 1970s, it was noted how there is increasing adoption in the replacement of conventional materials. Aerospace, transportation and construction were identified as industries showing above-average growth, with the boost in the latter attributed to the recovery of the housing market and, unexpectedly, growth in wind energy, although this growth is sharply declining.

To explain the lack of composites beyond specialist use, several areas were specified, ‘Affordability is undoubtedly one of the core reasons. Likewise, recyclability and reparability – maintenance and overhaul – is an issue, but it is being worked on.’ At the heart of all this is manufacturing times, which are seeing rapid improvement, linked to take-up of automation and robotics, to address the processing technology shortfalls.

Two areas were predicted to be significant contributors to the future of composites within the next 50 years. Firstly, education, ‘When I graduated in 1985, the mechanical engineers in my university had barely heard of composites. For those who are studying engineering today, it is part of their degrees, and rightly so. They are now key engineering materials to be used.’

The second is 3D printing, which did not go without its own presentations. Martin Hamill, Technical Applications Specialist at SYS Systems, discussed the misconceptions surrounding additive manufacturing to explain why it hasn’t overhauled the manufacturing process, but where it has made an impact.

One of the biggest misconceptions is how additive manufacturing is positioned, noting that ‘when people are looking at this technology, they think they’ll be ahead of the curve. The reality is, you’re behind the curve,’ remarking on the age and existing position of 3D printing. Other misjudgements are quickly built upon this, including assumptions of rapidly falling prices and the number of new models entering the market – ‘we see a lot of entry-level machines, but the technology is 20 years old’ – and its significance to a small impact in a lot of areas. ‘The truth is, it has a massive impact across the whole process, from rapid prototyping, rapid tooling, to rapid manufacturing.’

Hamill was keen to dispute one of the most common myths surrounding additive manufacturing – that it will reduce manufacturing costs. ‘This isn’t true. 3D printing is a flat business cost – if a part costs US$10 to print one, it will cost US$10 each across a hundred thousand. It doesn’t change, whereas conventional manufacturing can be expensive to start with, but as you ramp up the volumes, it gets cheaper and cheaper.

‘One of the advantages with additive manufacturing is you can start to produce a product a lot earlier in the process, and you can move over to conventional manufacturing processes as the cost changes. The decision point to cross over is whether it is a live, viable product, and 3D printing brings you to that point a lot earlier. It eliminates a lot of uncertainties in early manufacturing – reducing the cost of tooling, minimising the risk, but it’s never going to eliminate injection moulding.’

Liverpool seeks world land speed record

Following the ULV Team British land speed record for fastest human powered vehicle in September 2015 with the ARION1 bicycle, reaching 75.03 MPH, the team now have their sights set on the world record of 83.13 MPH, currently held by Canadian design company AeroVelo.

Student Sponsorship Manager Micheal Head said, ‘I think the British record is a real accomplishment, considering that AeroVelo are a multinational company and we’re entirely dependant on sponsorship. For the world record, we have a few changes already planned, including switching from front-wheel drive to rear-wheel.’

Coloured carbon fibre

Hypetex displayed its latest range of coloured carbon fibre products at Advanced Engineering, supported by materials testing partner Exova. Following seven years’ research supported by numerous Formula One engineering experts, Hypetex is able to emulate any colour from the 2,058-strong PANTONE Goe System without impacting on the integral qualities of carbon fibre.