Business Case for Branching into Additive Manufacturing
Our company is a global conglomerate involved in manufacturing automobile and aircraft parts. Our products are of extremely high quality, and are used by major automobile and aircraft companies of the world. Components produced by our company are used by automobile and aircraft manufacturers when producing new cars and aircraft, and also as spare parts for maintenance.
The aim of this brief would be to convince the Board of Directors of our company to open a production line using additive manufacturing so that the company remains abreast of technology and responsive to rapid changes in customer preferences.
Additive Manufacturing: Process in Brief
Additive manufacturing is a new process of manufacturing in which a physical object is produced through the layer-by-layer selective fusion, sintering or polymerization of a material. The process starts with a three dimensional image created on a computer. This image is broken into smaller slices. The thickness of each slice depends upon the technology subset of additive manufacturing that a manufacturer plans to use for making the product. A manufacturing machine then builds one slice at a time. The machine deposits suitable material for each slice and then fuses the various slices. Through this iterative process, the Machine converts the electronic image of the object into a physical product (Diegel et al. 70).
Main Technologies in Additive Manufacturing
Additive manufacturing can be done using a number of technologies. These technologies would be briefly described below.
Stereolithography. Stereolithography is a liquid based process where an ultraviolet ray makes contact with a resin and solidifies it by ‘curing’ it. The solidified resin is in the form of thin slices. The thickness of each slice depends upon the sophistication of the manufacturing process (Kaufai and Hernandez 2).
Standard Tessellation. When the coordinates of an object file created by computer-aided design are mapped onto a set of inter-related triangles, the process is known as standard tessellation and the computer file generated is called an ‘STL’ file. 3D Systems Inc. created the process of tessellation, which is the norm in most processes using additive manufacturing (Kaufai and Hernandez 3).
3DP. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology licensed the process called 3DP. When using the 3DP process, a manufacturer applies a water based liquid binder onto a starch-based powder. The powder particles become glued to one another when the jet of the liquid binder hits the powder. The process is akin to inkjet printing and can create a variety of products (Kaufai and Hernandez 4).
Fused Deposition Modeling. In the fused deposition modeling technique, a plastic sheet moves along a machine to a point where a focused laser is applied to it, causing the plastic to melt. The machine draws the molten plastic into the small dimensions of the final product. The process does not require chemical processes and resins, and is therefore relatively less expensive. However, the savings on expenses come at the price of time – the process requires days for creating a complex product (Kaufai and Hernandez 4).
Prometal. Prometal is a three-dimensional printing process for creating injection tools and dies. The process involves a jet a liquid binder being applied to steel powder. The steel powder lies in a powder bed, which is raised and lowered for selective fusing of the steel powder in layers. Once different layers are fused, the final product is created (Kaufai and Hernandez 4).
Selective Laser Sintering. Selective laser sintering involves the application of a beam of carbon dioxide laser onto a powder. A wide variety of materials could be used in powder form for sintering by the laser: plastics, metals, combinations of metals and plastics, and combinations of metals and ceramics. The accuracy of the process is limited by the size of particles of the material used (Kaufai and Hernandez 4).
Electron Beam Melting. This is a relatively newer process. Instead of a laser, the 3D machine uses an electron beam for fusing the material. A vacuum chamber is required for the process of binding. As vacuum is the designed medium of production, the process can be used for creating 3D products in outer space (Kaufai and Hernandez 5).
Laser Engineered Net Shaping. In this process, a machine injects metal powder to a specific location and melts it using a high-powered laser beam. The metal cools and solidifies in an argon atmosphere. The process allows a variety of metals such as vanadium, titanium, aluminum, stainless steel and nickel based alloys to be used. Due to the flexibility possible in terms of material, the process is preferred when repairing complex parts. The process has the disadvantage of leaving residual stress points due to repeated heating and cooling involved (Kaufai and Hernandez 5).
Laminated Object Manufacturing. In this process, the machine bonds layers one upon another by applying pressure and heat. A carbon dioxide laser cuts the layers into shapes as designed by the Computer Aided Design (CAD) software. The process is relatively inexpensive because there is no post processing. However, there is an inherent disadvantage of wastage of raw material (Kaufai and Hernandez 5).
Advantages of Additive Manufacturing
Mass Customization. In a traditional manufacturing scenario, any change in the product line requires a new set of tools to be designed and fabricated – a process that is time consuming. With the advent of additive manufacturing, the constraint of time becomes substantially lessened as tools and components can be created faster. As a result, manufacturers get the leverage to be nimble in the marketplace. Apart from tooling, manufacturers also have the option to make every component in a production run differently from others without a significant difference to the cost of production. Increased customization of products would serve to increase customer satisfaction and enhance profitability (Diegel et al. 71).
Freedom of Design. On many occasions, a designer’s ideas of aesthetics and functionality are sacrificed at the altar of the production process due to manufacturing constraints. Additive manufacturing would serve to ease this constraint, allowing for more intricate and functional designs (Diegel et al. 71).
Reduced Time to Market. Additive manufacturing would result in shorter prototyping and development cycles. As a result, products would have a shorter incubation cycle and would hit the markets faster (Sharon 13).
Environmental Sustainability. Traditional manufacturing depends upon a number of processes such as casting and molding that consume substantial energy and create hazardous industrial waste. Additive manufacturing has the potential to replace many of the inefficient processes of traditional manufacturing. According to the US Department of commerce, as much as half the energy costs in the manufacturing process may be saved (Sharon 14).
Limitations of Additive Manufacturing
Additive manufacturing, however, is not a panacea. There are only certain types of products that can be made by additive manufacturing.
Enclosed Voids. Designing components with enclosed voids is difficult, as additive manufacturing is based on the concept of adding one layer upon another. If a void were to be created, a practical approach would be to create two parts of the component and fuse them together. This solution, in turn, might incorporate additional stress points in the component (Diegel et al. 72).
Surface Finish. Because of the inherent process of layers being built one upon the other, additive manufacturing may result in surfaces lacking smoothness. A ‘staircase effect’ may be evident on horizontally sloping surfaces. Additional post-processing steps are necessary to overcome this limitation (Diegel et al. 72).
Strength and Flexibility. Each slice of a model is built in the horizontal ‘x-y’ orientation and added on the ‘z’ direction. The layers may differ in strength and flexibility. While newer processes have reduced the margin of variation, designers would need to ensure that the material is stacked in the orientation in which the product can withstand greater stress in day-to-day functioning (Diegel et al. 72).
Material and Machine Costs. If cheaper additive manufacturing machines are used in a product, the production run has to bear larger material costs due to inherent wastage in the additive manufacturing process. On the other hand, if material costs are economized, the additive manufacturing machine and process become more expensive. This dichotomy is because the medium has not yet reached critical mass by way of manufacturing units. Till the time the economics of scale make machines and processes cheaper, manufacturers would need to play machine and material costs to arrive at optimality (Diegel et al. 72).
Automobile Industry. The automobile industry has been one of the first to leverage additive manufacturing to create tool prototypes and small custom parts for short production runs. It is now using the process to make lightweight vehicles using aluminum alloys. With time, additive manufacturing is likely to be used to produce a larger number of components (Sharon 8).
Medicine. The medical industry uses additive manufacturing to produce medical devices that closely resemble the human form. The most prevalent medical applications of additive manufacturing are in-the-ear hearing aids, prosthetic limbs, dental implants and aligners. Recently, researchers have devised methods to use additive manufacturing to create human body parts like skin tissue and human ears. The pharmaceutical industry has the potential to use additive manufacturing to create custom built pills that could target multiple ailments, thus reducing the confusion of taking multiple pills at varying timings (Sharon 10).
Aerospace. The aerospace industry requires lightweight, strong and geometrically complex parts in small quantities. The aerospace industry has begun to use additive manufacturing to develop prototypes. In a bid to reduce weight of components, the industry has turned to aluminum, titanium, plastic and other lightweight materials. Additive manufacturing can ensure minimal wastage of such raw material, resulting in savings (Sharon 11).
USA has certain inherent advantages that would facilitate the growth of additive manufacturing. Most of the developments in additive manufacturing have taken place in USA, giving it the first mover advantage in the field. USA has the largest budget in Research and Development – an aspect that is likely to yield dividends in the form of better methods of additive manufacturing being patented in the USA. While available data shows that additive manufacturing currently makes less than 1% of the components, there is substantial potential for growth (Sharon 6).
Implications for Our Company
Our company must leverage the trends that are visible in the automobile and aerospace industry and work towards meeting the future demands of on-demand, low production-run components made of lightweight and expensive material. Our company can meet this demand if we gain expertise in additive manufacturing and beat the competition in quality, cost and technical knowhow. Therefore, we request that the board of directors pass our bid for money to start a new production line for additive manufacturing.
Additive manufacturing is set to be a disruptive influence in the manufacturing industry. Early adopters of the technology are destined to gain a substantial first mover advantage. It is, therefore, incumbent for our company to adopt the process and gain mastery over it.
Wong, Kaufai V., and Hernandez, Aldo. (2012). “A Review of Additive Manufacturing.” ISRN Mechanical Engineering Volume 2012, Article ID 208760. 10 pages.[Open access article distributed under Creative Commons License.] doi: 10.5402/2012/208760.
Diegel, Olaf et al. (2010). “Tools for Sustainable Product Design: Additive Manufacturing.” Journal of Sustainable Development 3/3, 68-75. Web.
Ford, Sharon L. (2014). “Additive Manufacturing Technology: Potential Implications for US Manufacturing Competitiveness.” Journal of International Commerce and Economics. USITC.gov. [Published electronically]. 35 pages. Web.