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The Future is Serial: How Additive Manufacturing Can Elevate the Production Line

By Christian Lengwenat,
Application Engineer for Metal 3D Printing

Additive manufacturing (AM) — once reserved for prototyping — is becoming an increasingly feasible technology for serial production.

Many companies have embraced 3D printing to produce custom parts and tooling. Now, as the process becomes more affordable and efficient, manufacturers are turning their attention to AM's place within the production line. For some — especially those producing smaller parts — serialized AM is already a reality.

At RAPID + TCT 2023, North America's largest and most influential AM event, I will present a process developed by TRUMPF that utilizes AM to produce high-performance bicycle parts. Leveraging Laser Powder Bed Fusion (LPBF), our team designed, printed and tested hydraulic brakes and other components to assess their suitability for serialization.

The case not only demonstrates the possibilities of AM in serial production in one specific field — it also points to broader potential across industry verticals, including automotive, aerospace and healthcare manufacturing.

Unlocking New Possibilities

In LPBF — the most common method for 3D printing metal — a high-power laser fuses layers of powdered material to create a complete part. The process allows manufacturers to produce highly-complex components faster than traditional methods, like forging or casting. It cuts waste, reducing the costs associated with production. And it enables companies to iterate on the design of parts without investing in further tools or molds.

Along with creating process improvements, LPBF unlocks new material possibilities. Due to its mechanical properties, titanium is difficult and expensive to machine. In comparison, printing it using LPBF is relatively easy.

For the cycling industry, the ability to print titanium will allow manufacturers to offer parts that outperform those produced using aluminum and steel. LPBF-printed titanium has implications for other fields, too. Because titanium is durable, biocompatible and non-magnetic, it is an excellent material for medical implants. The high strength-to-weight ratio also makes it ideal for aerospace applications.

Playing to Strengths

The AM industry has made great strides in process and material quality. That said, there are still significant obstacles for manufacturers pursuing serialization. Engineers have traditionally tailored product specifications to suit the design principles of processes like molding, welding and lathe work.

3D printing requires an entirely different approach to design and production. For manufacturers who lack expertise in the area, it can be a challenge to identify where and how to translate the principles of AM into a part or product blueprint.

A design should play to the strengths of a particular manufacturing method — and work within its limitations. AM offers elevated flexibility in producing intricate parts, such as lattice structures and honeycomb patterns. However, like any manufacturing process, it has restrictions. Due to the limited build area of the printers, small-footprint pieces work best. Meanwhile, steep overhangs can jeopardize the stability of the process.

Addressing Challenges

To overcome design challenges, manufacturers embarking on the journey toward serialization should work with an expert who understands design for AM (DfAM) guidelines. The most compelling use cases for AM are those where parts can be redesigned to exploit the strengths of the process. In the case of TRUMPF's bicycle parts, we found that using LPBF allowed us to create uniquely durable, lightweight and cost-effective components.

Companies must also ensure they can support the entire production chain. Parts produced using LPBF, for example, must be separated from the substrate plate they were printed on and processed to hone their surface quality.

Although 3D printing technology is advancing quickly, post-production equipment has been slower to evolve. Machine manufacturers are now devising ways to scale post-production processes — for instance, using tumbling to smooth printed plastic and metal parts. As the industry develops more sophisticated finishing methods, it will pave the way for the large-scale adoption of AM.

Revolutionizing Production

At TRUMPF, we have observed a significant shift in how companies implement AM in their production. Initially, customers concentrated on using 3D printing to produce models and custom parts. Recently, there has been a notable growth in interest in integrating AM into serialized production lines.

We can expect this trend to accelerate as 3D printing and post-production techniques become faster and more refined. Pioneers of serial AM stand to benefit from enhanced speed and efficacy and reduced waste and expenditure. In addition, the design freedom offered by AM will enable manufacturers to switch freely between materials and designs. A company could use its printers to produce aluminum parts one week and stainless steel the next, or adjust and redesign components on demand.

Over the next decade, 3D printing promises to revolutionize serial production. As consumer expectations evolve and global competition intensifies, AM can help businesses set a new pace for innovation.

Christian Lengwenat is an Application Engineer for Metal 3D Printing at TRUMPF, one of the world's largest providers of machine tools. In this role, he provides technical consulting for process, machines and design for additive manufacturing (DfAM) and supports process development for metal additive manufacturing on TruPrint Machines. Don’t miss his RAPID + TCT 2023 conference session: Metal 3D-Printing for High Performance Titanium Bicycle Applications Pushing Bike Parts to the Next Level Using LPBF.