Wohlers Associates helps organizations take advantage of technologies and strategies that enhance the rapid product development and manufacturing process.
By Clare Scott
Additive manufacturing is advancing quickly, but challenges and limitations still remain. The amount of progress that has been made, however—and is still continuing to be made—is undeniable. It’s likely that even the toughest challenges in AM will be overcome as the industry keeps pressing forward. Let’s take a look at some of the biggest limitations of AM, as well as some growing areas that illustrate the direction in which the industry is heading.
Challenges in AM
Material Limitations: Many AM technologies are limited by the materials they can use. While there has been significant progress in developing new materials, some industries require specific properties that are still challenging to replicate with AM. Not all metals and plastics can be temperature-controlled enough for the conditions that AM requires.
Quality Control: Maintaining consistent quality in additively manufactured parts can be a challenge, especially for large-scale production. Factors such as layer adhesion and structural integrity need to be carefully monitored and controlled. Quality control and monitoring equipment has come a long way, but it still hasn’t advanced to the point of complete reliability.
Post-Processing: While AM allows for complex designs, the post-processing of parts can be time-consuming and costly. Smoothing surfaces, removing support structures, and finishing details are areas that need improvement. Design for additive manufacturing (DfAM) is a useful tool in reducing the amount of post-processing needed for additively manufactured parts.
Intellectual Property Concerns: As AM becomes more accessible, concerns about intellectual property theft and the potential for counterfeiting have grown. Pressing issues include protecting digital design files and enforcing intellectual property rights.
Regulatory Hurdles: AM in medical and aerospace applications, for example, faces strict regulatory requirements. Ensuring that 3D-printed components meet safety and quality standards is essential in applications that directly affect the health and safety of humans.
Future Trends in AM
Multi-Material Printing: One of the most exciting trends in AM is the development of multi-material printing. This allows for the creation of complex, multi-functional objects in a single print. Applications range from custom electronics to advanced prosthetics.
Large-Scale AM: Additively manufactured parts are getting bigger. Larger and larger parts can be additively manufactured in one piece as printers grow in size. Massive construction 3D printers, for example, can create entire walls that then become part of houses, bridges, or other structures. AM can also create large tooling for aerospace parts—or create the parts themselves.
Bioprinting and Organ Transplants: The field of bioprinting is progressing rapidly, with researchers aiming to print tissues and organs for transplantation. This could alleviate the shortage of donor organs and open up new possibilities in regenerative medicine. Even now, human tissue is being printed for purposes such as research and pharmaceutical testing.
Sustainability and Recycling: Sustainable practices are increasingly crucial in manufacturing. Future trends in AM involve developing recyclable materials and more energy-efficient printing processes to reduce environmental impact.
Automation and AI Integration: As AM becomes more widespread, automation and artificial intelligence (AI) are playing a larger role. AI can optimize print parameters, monitor quality, and even design parts more efficiently. Some companies are developing entire AM factories with robots that load and unload parts and monitor print jobs without human intervention.
Space Exploration: AM in space is a big story these days. Astronauts can print tools and replacement parts on-demand, reducing the need for costly resupply missions. NASA recently made the bold claim that it wants to use AM to build habitable structures on the moon by 2040. Researchers have made a great deal of progress printing objects with simulated lunar soil, so this goal may be in reach, especially with so many advancements in additive construction.
Education and Accessibility: Schools and makerspaces are increasingly adopting AM technology for educational purposes. The workforce of the future will need to be well-versed in AM and other disruptive technologies, so it’s important that these skills are taught even at the earliest levels.
The challenges facing AM are not insurmountable. Researchers are working on finding solutions to the issues listed above, and have made great progress already. Already, people are printing with materials that were at one point not printable. Quality control and post-processing technology is advancing, and organizations such as ASTM International are developing standards for AM. Overall, the future outlook for AM is bright, and it’s an exciting time to observe and see what else will develop in the years to come.
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