Manufacturers around the world are putting aside their molds and tooling to take advantage of direct digital manufacturing solutions for a wide variety of projects.
Also known as additive manufacturing, additive freeform fabrication, rapid prototyping, layered manufacturing, and 3D printing, these solutions allow the manufacturers to go directly from a digital representation of an object on a computer screen to the manufacturing of the object. The digital representation is transformed with materials, including plastic, composite, or metal in powder, sheet, or liquid form, and a choice of many direct digital manufacturing, or DDM, technologies. Ranging in price from under $5,000 to hundreds of thousands of dollars, these manufacturing technologies employ diverse methods, including selectively fusing, sintering, or polymerizing materials into an object.
No matter the name or technology used, the result can be the same: an innovative way to potentially save weeks or even months of manufacturing time, while cutting waste and minimizing related costs. Unlike traditional, subtractive manufacturing solutions, DDM eliminates the need to create molds or tooling. In addition, most DDM solutions do not create excessive scrap material. So a manufacturer can save ramp-up and ongoing manufacturing time and related costs. The solutions can be used to create a variety of objects, from parts for internal assemblies to complete products that can be finished with polishing, sealing, and painting.
DDM has been chosen by the Society of Manufacturing Engineers as one of the five 2008 innovations with the potential to change manufacturing. But even with their advantages, DDM solutions are not a panacea. They have proven themselves successful in giving manufacturers a competitive edge in certain situations. They work best with objects that require complex geometries, the kind with thin walls, negative angles, or intricate injection mold components. In some cases where complex geometries have forced manufacturers to create two parts, DDM has enabled them to create one consolidated part.
DDM solutions are ideal for short-run quantities, although research is underway to expand their use for a wide variety of high-volume applications as well. They’re also a good fit for projects that require a rapid turnaround measured in days.
On the downside, size can be an issue. Many of the DDM technologies have relatively small build envelopes. For example, one line has a working envelope of 10 inches by 7.5 inches.
So what are manufacturers around the world creating with DDM? These solutions are being used in markets from aerospace and automotive to consumer electronics, medical/dental, and entertainment. They’re helping to create air ducts, dental crowns and bridges, jewelry, hearing aids, automotive assembly aids and body panels, orthopedic implants, chairs, collectables, sprinklers, and parts for manufacturing, to name a few applications.
For those businesses interested in exploring DDM, a quick Internet search will yield numerous articles detailing the pros and cons of using the solutions as well as links to suppliers of DDM equipment and services. But anyone who undertakes this search should remember to also search for additive manufacturing, additive freeform fabrication, rapid prototyping, layered manufacturing, and 3D printing