Additive manufacturing — also known as 3-D printing — is coming out of rapid prototyping and moving into the assembly line for end-use production. Industries like automotive, aerospace and medical are already using it to make products for end users.
Last November, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory installed parts 3-D printed by Stratasys onto one of its satellites bound for outer space.
France's Airbus is also using Stratasy's production-grade printers to print flight parts for its new A350 XWB airplanes: the first of these planes delivered in December 2014 had more than 1,000 3-D printed parts installed in it.
Joe Allison, chief executive of Stratasys Direct Manufacturing (SDM), has written in the introduction of a SDM report published in August that within 10 years every commercial plane will feature 3-D printed parts.
Companies are also training new workers to use this technology and buying more 3-D printing machines.
SDM's report shows that 73 percent of the 700 respondents to SDM's survey said their companies planned to increase its in-house production of additive manufactured parts, a trend more pronounced in the aerospace and medical industries.
Nicole Clement, Stratasys' marketing director for Europe, Middle East and Africa, tells PRW that OEMs like Airbus, Boeing and General Motors have been testing additive printed parts. “We are now getting queries from their suppliers. It has been a domino effect.”
She says the reason why companies invest in 3-D printing is parts weight reduction and the enabling of spare parts to be printed on demand. “In aerospace and automotive another factor is who can bring innovation and differentiation faster to market.”
The third area is to manufacture tooling. Companies using AM do not need to invest in complicated jig and fixtures which can take a long time to produce.
Clement believes rising fuel costs and sustainability goals are also propelling aerospace to using additive manufacturing as a production tool.
In automotive she believes competition is coming in from electric cars and the individualization requirements of prestige brands such as BMW and Bentley are the reasons for increased use of additive manufacturing technology.
Medical is another field in which Stratasys is seeing growth. AM can produce replica body parts that aid in treatment. Clement says: “We can print a brain tumor directly from a CT scan, allowing the surgeon to preplan surgery and talk a client through the steps conducted in an operation. This allows the medical sector to offer full transparency. We have been told it can cut surgery time by 50 percent.”
She adds that private hospitals and university hospitals are using AM to produce prototypes of surgical instruments and actual instruments in their own brand colors. “Johnson & Johnson are doing this as well as manufacturing surgical instruments using our systems.”
Sales of AM systems were 4 billion pounds ($6 billion) last year and projected by 2020 to be 20 billion pounds ($30.3 billion). The split is currently 60 percent for AM tools end use parts and 40 percent for prototyping.
AM has traditionally required specific materials for production. Standard granulate cannot be used on machines uses for this purpose, apart from Arburg's new Freeformer. So Stratasys and other material producers have introduced new materials offering different colors and textures.
Stratasys launched Ultem 1010 resin, earlier this year, which combines superior heat resistance, tensile strength and chemical resistance. It can be sterilized using steam autoclaving for medical applications.