Additive manufacturing (AM) has emerged over the past 20 years as a technology that is revolutionizing the manufacturing industry with its ability to turn digital data into physical parts. The distinct ability to manufacture complex shapes and structures has already made it invaluable for the production of prototypes such as engine manifolds for the automotive industry and tools such as investment casting molds in the jewelry and aeronautical industries.
AM offers the potential for developing complex, customized products that are prohibitively expensive to produce in current manufacturing settings. AM is poised to bring about a revolution in the way products are designed, manufactured, and distributed to end users. The technology has gained significant academic as well as industry interest due to its ability to create complex geometries with customizable material properties. AM has also inspired the development of the “maker” movement by democratizing design and manufacturing.
According to the iRAP report titled ‘Additive Manufacturing – Machines, Materials, Technologies, Applications, New Developments, Industry Structure and Global Markets’, the 2018 market for AM machines, materials and processes is projected to reach $6 billion in 2018. It is expected to grow at a CAGR of 24.5% from 2018 through 2023, to reach $19.5 billion in 2023.
In its early years, AM was mostly applied in fabricating conceptual and functional prototypes. These prototypes were most commonly used as communication and inspection tools. Producing several physical models in a short time directly from computer solid models helped to shorten the production development timeline.
Rapid prototyping (RP) remains the dominant application of polymer AM processes and is well established in the market. Many of the aforementioned technologies are limited to RP, as they do not allow for processing of common engineering materials (polymers, metals, ceramics and composites thereof) with sufficient mechanical properties.
Besides RP, AM for rapid tooling also makes up some of the current AM activity involving the fabrication of molds and dies. For manufacturing applications of AM processes, notable areas of success include the production of medical devices such as dental crowns and hearing aids. Rapid tooling also has been applied to the production of consumer products, including high-value lighting goods and electronics.
The aerospace sector also has found a number of applications, often driven by the possibilities of improving buy-to-fly ratios and reducing the weight of components through design optimization. Other areas benefitting from rapid tooling include automotive, jewelry, architecture and defense applications.