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5 Factors You Need to Consider When Moving to AM Production

3D printing is one of the key technologies leading the change in manufacturing. But to take full advantage of its potential in production, companies must establish the right infrastructure for Additive Manufacturing (AM).
 
From repeatability to automation, we explore five key pillars that support the move of 3D printing to end-part production and what solutions can help with the transition. 
 

1. Traceability

 
Traceability is currently one of the key concerns facing companies adopting additive manufacturing for production.
 
In manufacturing, traceability means the ability to track every part and product throughout the manufacturing process, from the moment when raw materials enter the factory to the moment when final products are shipped.  
 
With regulations, reporting and quality control requirements coming into play – particularly for industries like aerospace and medical –  the current lack of traceability across the AM ecosystem and supply chain must be tackled if AM is to be widely adopted as a viable manufacturing technology.
 
One challenge to this is the ability to trace reused material. For example, in metal PBF, after the printing process is complete, some amount of metal powder remains unmelted and can be sieved and then blended with a new powder in a specified proportion.
 
The material reuse process must be visible and traceable, so that end users can be assured that they are using high-quality materials to build critical parts.
 
Furthermore, batch traceability is essential to ensure that parts in each batch comply with any safety or quality standards. 
 
Currently, the best way to achieve traceability is through the use of digital solutions, like Manufacturing Execution System (MES), software that manages and controls every step in AM production workflow.  
 

Additive MES software
Additive MES software is one of the answers to the current lack of traceability in AM [Image credit: AMFG]
 

End-to-end traceability, enabled by MES software, can establish more effective quality management processes through data analytics and business intelligence tools. 
 
Being able to track exactly what has happened to your 3D parts, and when, along the product life cycle, adds a new level of process quality for AM, as companies can easily review key data and optimise processes when errors or faults arise.
 
Establishing traceable AM operations is the first step towards using the technology for production, as it helps to ensure transparency and accountability throughout the supply chain and to prove that products meet certain standards or comply with industry regulations.
 

2. Repeatability

 
Repeatability – the ability to produce a part or component which is the same every single time – is another crucial factor in achieving production with AM.
 
Most AM technologies require a comprehensive build setup to ensure the part completes the printing process and can undergo post-processing. As most AM users know, this is sometimes easier said than done, as it’s not uncommon to face part-to-part and machine-to-machine variations and inconsistencies. 
 

in-process monitoring in 3D printing
In-process monitoring could be a solution to a part-to-part variation issue in metal AM [Image credit: Aconity3D]

 
One way forward is to gather as much data as possible, which can provide insight into the 3D printing process, and use this data to optimise the process. 
 
Establishing a closed-loop control system is considered the most efficient way to increase repeatability in AM. 
 
A closed-loop control system involves three steps: the first is the planning of the build through simulation; second is in-process monitoring of the printing process; and finally, the use of the gathered data to spot deviations during the printing process and adjust the system to compensate for them. 
 
Ultimately, achieving repeatability will require tight integration of hardware and software. In addition to that, manufacturers should have a deep understanding of the AM equipment, the key variables that go into the process, how those variables can vary and how to calibrate the equipment.
 
While this, of course, involves a steep learning curve, having this knowledge is vital for 3D printing parts with reliable, consistent results. 
 

3. Part accuracy 

 
As the use of AM is growing beyond just cosmetic models, there’s a growing focus on dimensional accuracy. The term accuracy describes how closely a manufacturing system’s output conforms to a tolerance within a specified dimensional range.
 
When AM was in its early stage and was used primarily for prototyping, accuracy did not matter much. Today, however, much more is required of AM systems. They routinely produce functional prototypes, fixtures and end-use parts that must meet the same stringent accuracy standards associated with traditional manufacturing methods, such as machining, injection moulding and casting.
 
Overall dimensional accuracy is paramount if these manufacturing aids and finished goods are to function properly.
 
Given 3D printing’s push into demanding functional applications, it’s important to consider whether a 3D printing system can produce parts that hold tolerance and can do so repeatedly. 
 

4. Automation

 
Automation is another step on the journey towards AM production-readiness and scalability. Achieved through a combination of hardware and software, as well as robotics, sensors and networks, automation ensures more streamlined processes as part of an end-to-end digital production cycle.
 
For manufacturers, incorporating automation systems into AM production lines can lead to greater efficiency, for example, by replacing manual processes and establishing advanced tracking and analytics systems. 
 
Different levels of automation can be achieved throughout the AM workflow. On the design stage, there are currently solutions that help automate some parts of the design process, like support generation. 
 
Additionally, design tools, like topology optimisation, are evolving to help generate and validate the best designs for a given application and engineering requirements.
 
On the production stage, there is an opportunity to streamline production planning and management with the help of MES software. Such software replaces labour-intensive processes, like manual order handling and project management, through the use of a single digital platform.  
 
Furthermore, AM post-processing has long been the least automated stage of the entire AM production line. This is changing now, with the introduction of post-processing systems geared towards automated cleaning, depowdering, support removal and dyeing for 3D-printed parts. 
 
Having automated post-processing systems in place also opens the door to a higher degree of repeatability with AM. Since almost all 3D-printed parts will require some form of post-processing, it is critical to ensure that a post-processing system can deliver repeatable results – and software-driven automation provides one of the solutions.
 
Introducing automation at all stages of the AM workflow will ultimately drive down the overall cost of 3D printing, expanding its reach to a wider range of applications. 
 

5. Verification and regulatory compliance 

 
The final element that underpins the transition to production with AM is the ability to verify the performance of your 3D-printed parts. 
 
A verified AM process allows manufacturers to know that the chemical, mechanical, and, for metal parts, metallurgical properties, as well as complex geometries, can be achieved consistently within specification limits. 
 
To achieve verification, it’s crucial to understand and apply currently available AM standards developed by ISO, ASTM and other standardisation bodies. 
 
While standards are being developed for 3D printing processes – so far there are 22 published standards by ASTM and 15 by ISO – many of the critical standards are still under development. 
 
For example, the current method of quality assurance and verification is testing final parts, which requires additional time and resources. To overcome this issue, the industry needs to develop comprehensive part certification processes which will allow for better real-time quality control.
 
Making the task more difficult is the fact that certification processes differ according to industry and application. How and when testing is done for certification is an area that will need to be specified by any standardisation process.
 
That said, collaboration with experts and successful adopters, like established service providers, is a crucial step towards becoming knowledgeable about the most current regulations and verification procedures that you need to successfully integrate 3D printing in your production environment. 
 

Successfully transitioning to production with 3D printing

 
The true production with 3D printing only begins when all five pieces come together. While we’ve discussed each of them separately, the elements often overlap and complement one another. 
 
That’s why it’s important to think and act holistically when integrating AM into your production. You can start by exploring the technologies available, prioritising those that will work best for your needs, gradually putting all the pieces together. 
 
While the shift won’t happen overnight, the benefits it provides will enable you to unlock new markets and business models, driving the future of digital manufacturing with 3D printing. 
 

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