The road to 3D printing

Dr. Bernhard Müller and Prof. Reimund Neugebauer on the near future of additive methods.

The global market volume of additive manufacturing machines, products, and services is substantial. It currently stands at 1.3 billion euros and is growing by 26.4 percent annually. Conservative estimates predict a market volume of 2.8 billion euros in 2015 and 5 billion euros in 2019. Based on the current market penetration of only one to eight percent, we can extrapolate an overall market potential of up to 130 billion euros.

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The authors

Dr. Bernhard Müller, head of the Additive Manufacturing Technologies business unit and field of research at Fraunhofer IWU

Prof. Reimund Neugebauer, President of the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft

Fraunhofer and additive manufacturing

The Fraunhofer Additive Manufacturing Alliance encompasses eleven institutes which are based throughout Germany to form the entire additive manufacturing process chain, comprising the development, application and implementation of additive manufacturing methods and processes.

Laser Additive Manufacturing of a Turbine Blade Demonstrator

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How quickly and to what extent this market potential can be realized greatly depends on the one hand on how quickly the necessary development steps are taken to achieve significant cost reductions and improved repeatability. On the other hand, greater awareness and deeper knowledge of additive manufacturing methods must take root among industrial developers and design engineers, so that the benefits of these methods can flow effectively into the product development process – universities and companies alike should step up to the plate here!

Conditions for commercial breakthrough

Before additive methods for manufacturing series products and tools can achieve a commercial breakthrough, there is a need for further applied research and development to make the processes more robust, repeatable, and cost-effective. The Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft sees it as its duty to take up a key role here. For example, eleven of its institutes throughout Germany (IFAM, IFF, IKTS, ILT, IPA, IPK, IPT, IWM, IWU, IZM, and UMSICHT) together make up the Fraunhofer Additive Manufacturing Alliance, modeling the entire process chain of additive manufacturing in all its facets – from development to application and implementation.

At its joint booths at trade fairs such as EuroMold and Rapid.Tech, the Additive Manufacturing Alliance takes a look at the future of additive manufacturing under the motto “Generate the Future” – whether in an auto repair shop in the year 2025 or in the production facilities of tomorrow.

Successful applications already exist

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Picture 1: Topology-optimized design of a skateboard hanger, additively manufactured from aluminum via selective laser melting

However, we should not forget that a few series products have been manufactured using additive methods for some years now. Examples include in-the-ear hearing aid cases manufactured to patients’ individual requirements, invisible plastic orthodontic splints, and air control systems in Boeing airplanes, manufactured by laser sintering polyamide.

In addition to these plastic products, some metallic products are also series manufactured using additive processes – including dental prostheses, such as crowns and caps, and special acetabular implants used in hip replacements. Moreover, the fuel injection nozzle for GE Aviation’s new LEAP engine will be manufactured additively as an integral complex part in future: replacing a 20-part assembly with 19 soldering operations, the new nozzle will be 25 percent lighter and last five times as long.
While it is difficult to predict which large-scale series applications will be next to use additive manufacturing methods, we can certainly outline their general characteristics:

  • Relatively low production volumes at first (all the way down to single pieces)
  • Complex shape and geometrical elements, integrating several individual parts into one complex part
  • Incorporation of additional functions and added value
  • Reduced component weight by means of topology optimization, bionic design, or the integration of stress-optimized regulating lattice structures (see picture 1)
  • Move away from tools and molds, mating operations, and warehousing

Promising applications in tool-making

Two particularly promising fields of application are endo- and exoprosthetics (implant and prosthesis manufacturing) and tool- and mold-making. While the market for manufacturing tailored, patient-adapted endo- and exoprostheses is an exciting growth prospect, at present it is being held back in Germany to a large extent by the prevailing healthcare policies (in particular, medical insurers’ case-based lump sum systems). In the case of tool- and mold-makers, there is not yet sufficient awareness that the additional cost of additive tools is often recouped many times over within a very short period in the form of avoided costs, resource savings, and improved component quality.

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Picture 2: Tool insert for hot forming sheet metal with near-net-shape additively manufactured cooling (left: CAD; right: actual tool)

In collaboration with industrial partners in the Green Carbody Technologies innovation alliance, Fraunhofer researchers have already been able to demonstrate these benefits. Tool inserts manufactured using additive methods and suitable for series production, with near-net-shape, geometrically complex cooling channels (see picture 2), enable cycle times in the hot forming of sheet metal to be reduced by over 20 percent and 715 MWh of energy to be saved every year! Laser-melted tool and mold inserts allow similar improvements and savings to be obtained in plastics injection molding, light-metal die-casting, and forging.

Documenting quality

Components manufactured using additive methods must meet high requirements in relation to systematic quality monitoring – particularly in the aviation and automotive industries. This means quality management systems must find their way into additive manufacturing, with control procedures much like those currently employed by casting specialists to ensure that components manufactured using additive methods consistently meet the requisite quality standards. Alongside quality inspection, real-time monitoring of the production process is another important component of quality management, allowing the production process to be thoroughly documented and irregularities to be identified. As a longer-term goal, such monitoring will make it possible to intervene in the running process and make adjustments as soon as a problem arises.

Especially for laser-based methods, the cost reduction that can be achieved by using additive manufacturing processes depends to a large extent on the increase in productivity they deliver. Current research into laser melting is exploring ways of further increasing laser power to one or even two kilowatts from the current capacity of 100 to a maximum of 400 watts (with machines commercially available today). The first machines with 1 kilowatt laser power – which Fraunhofer ILT helped develop – have already been presented and are currently being installed in the premises of beta testers.

Use of the technology in large companies and small specialists

Today’s users are primarily the big original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) in the automotive, consumer goods, and electronics industries along with aircraft and engine manufacturers. Practically every large company already operates its own additive manufacturing lines and uses the processes for design studies, prototypes, and pre-production parts, as well as for initial series production parts for interior and air control applications. In the field of medicine, it is mainly implant manufacturers and dental laboratories that use additive manufacturing technologies.

Small specialists already working with additive manufacturing technology include motor sport companies (for prototypes and series production parts), tool-makers, plastics engineering specialists, foundries (for tool and mold inserts or foundry patterns), and mechanical engineering companies. Demand from OEMs for components manufactured using additive methods is also leading to a proliferation of specialized suppliers and rapid prototyping service providers.

In certain niche sectors, the direct additive manufacture of series production components and end products – known as rapid manufacturing or direct digital manufacturing – is beginning to take hold. Component characteristics typical of series production and rising productivity, process reliability, and repeatability are reinforcing this trend, which is following the megatrend of tailored manufacturing. Additive manufacturing methods are a unique means, today and in the future, of turning this megatrend into manufacturing reality.

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