The value of additive manufacturing

Materials World magazine
1 Jan 2018

The fusing of molecular science and engineering could be the key to solving some of the biggest challenges in additive manufacturing (AM), as Ellis Davies reports. 

Imperial College, London, hosted The value of additive manufacturing: future opportunities on 30 November 2017, to launch the latest briefing paper from The Institute for Molecular Science and Engineering and Additive Manufacturing Network. Held at the new White City campus, the event comprised an introduction from Dr Billy Wu of the Additive Manufacturing Network, followed by a keynote, The role of computer methods in additive manufacturing: where we are and where we ought to be, by Dr Ajit Panesar, Lecturer in Composite Manufacturing Simulation at Imperial. 

Blurring the lines

Dr. Billy Wu began the afternoon’s presentations by introducing the briefing paper. He highlighted the need to tackle key additive manufacturing (AM) challenges, such as high costs, lack of consistency and the need for better design tools.

‘The AM network at Imperial was set up two years ago,’ Wu said. ‘We found that there was a lot of work going on in AM at Imperial, but it was fragmented. In order to push the boundaries of the technology, to make it faster and incorporate new materials, we need a dialogue between scientists, engineers and designers, and greater exposure for their work.’ The Additive Manufacturing Network was set up to tackle this fragmentation.

The paper also highlights issues with the UK’s AM industry and goes on to suggest solutions. These include multifunctional AM (touched upon by Panesar in his keynote), looking at microstructure-performance relationships and cheaper technologies such as electrochemical AM. 

‘In this paper, we identify major research challenges to overcome, such as speed and the availability of materials. We get a lot of companies coming to us – they’ve heard of AM but they’re not that familiar with the technology. When you start to look into AM there are actually many different types. We report different technologies, each with its advantages and disadvantages. The challenge with AM is that it is talked about and there is lots of hype,’ said Wu. This hype risks overselling the technology, which can lead to unreasonable beliefs, such as AM being waste free – this is not the case, Wu highlighted. 

‘It is important to remember that when looking at new technologies, we also need to look at the whole processing chain [...] When making a 3D-printed part, you need to start with the design of the object, and when changing the manufacturing technique the design process must be altered to achieve the maximum impact,’ added Wu. 

An interesting point covered the IP of models for 3D printing. As these models are digital and potentially freely available, it is important to develop data security to ensure a model retains value for its creator. 

Overall, the white paper serves as an AM guide for companies, and a list of things to work on for those involved in development. The message is that work on AM needs to become less fragmented in order for the technology to reach its full potential. 

Where we are and where we ought to be

For his keynote presentation, Panesar gave an overview of the state-of-the-art implementations and developments for computer methods that have the potential to change how we design for AM. This would overcome challenges and allow designers to re-think the way parts are conceptualised and incorporate a new set of manufacturing constraints.

‘We live in a digital world where the role of computer methods is becoming increasingly more demanding,’ said Panesar. He explained this change by breaking his presentation into four phases – setting the scene, industry realities, greater adoption and untapped potential. The final three were visualised as a road map, showing the progression of AM parts through these phases. 

When looking at industry realities, Panesar focused on two elements – efficiency in the optimisation procedure, specifically structural optimisation, and packing efficiency relevant to those looking at improving the production of factory flow. In terms of structural optimisation, Panesar highlighted the need for greater analysis using mesh refinement.

Panesar also discussed greater adoption – mainly integrating circuitry into the structure of AM parts. This method, multifunctional AM, has potential use in energy storing panels for electric vehicles. Panesar highlighted the need to optimise the parts’ geometry to find the best route to take for an integrated system to be most effective.

An expansion in toolset was also covered in relation to lattice structures, which were presented as a key way to retain strength while reducing weight. While a solid structure is the most stable construction, it adds weight and therefore can be restrictive. Using software such as LatTess, a lattice tessellator developed by Panesar, can help create lattice structures that allow the user to view a 3D model and density profile before a lattice is created, which optimises efficiency. 

To round off his keynote, Panesar talked about realising potential by combining the previous phases. The result, he said, would be bone-inspired structures composed of a lattice core and a continuous fibre reinforced shell, which incorporates an internal system to improve functionality. A part produced in such a way would have strength, light weight and greater functionality and applications – a next generation AM part.  

To push innovation, Imperial has installed the Invention rooms at the White City campus, which comprise a range of workshops, design studios and interactive spaces that hold events and seminars for the public. Imperial describes it as a community innovation space for turning ideas into reality. The facility also incorporates the Advanced Hackspace – electrical and mechanical engineering workshops, digital fabrication spaces and physical computing workspace. This provides a space for over 2,000 like-minded makers, hackers, inventors and entrepreneurs across the university. Tours of these facilities were given at the event. 

See Spotlight for more information on using AM in industry.