ASK THE EXPERT: John Manley of Machine Tool Systems on the growth prospects for additive manufacturing

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Additive manufacturing has been primarily used for rapid prototyping in both automotive and aerospace manufacturing. But now the revolutionary technology is starting to catch on in both industries as a viable option for parts manufacturing. We spoke with John Manley, president of Machine Tool Systems Inc., the Canadian representative for EOS Additive Manufacturing solutions, to find out what is creating the new interest and what the future holds.

SHOP: What opportunities do you see the transition to electric vehicle production providing for additive manufacturing in Canada?

MANLEY: Especially today, many electric vehicles are bespoke and produced in smaller numbers. AM is very flexible in adjusting to new requirements and designs without the need for hard tooling changes. Implementing AM from the start of design allows the implementation of cooling, light weighting, part consolidation, compaction & customization.

As electrification and autonomy penetrate vehicles, electronics have become more sophisticated. With this complexity comes more densification of wiring. The harnessing of these electronics provides an interesting tooling challenge that is well suited for AM. The University of Ontario Institute of Technology is a great example with their role in the Canadian-made Project Arrow EV. A group of Ontario researchers and students, led by Dr. Ahmad Barari from the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, will be printing low volume metal components such as clips and brackets utilizing their EOS M100 DMLS.

Manufacturing the castings for vehicle frames has also changed with EVs. Monolithic structures, to create the entire chassis with battery packs integrated, are being fabricated with giga dies. These dies need to dissipate massive amounts of heat efficiently. Traditional coolant lines would cool a zone with a drilled hole. Today, AM produced conformal cooling channels that labyrinth throughout the die inserts allow for far superior cooling and far fewer fittings.  Newmarket-based Exco Engineering is a prime example of Canadian diecast tooling expertise utilizing multiple EOS AM systems.

Exco Engineering AM shop with EOS M400-4 DMLS installation. PHOTO courtesy Exco Engineering.

SHOP: Is additive manufacturing technology ready for the rigors of mass production or is it still more suited to smaller volume customized components and prototypes?

MANLEY: There will always be specific components that benefit from AM. It is unlikely to ever be cost-competitive to print an entire car frame, but highly complex automotive subcomponents utilizing part consolidation are already in production today. Sophisticated manifolds are a prime example of additively manufactured parts that are currently in production cars, not only in performance vehicles as many people would assume. If automotive design engineers keep the benefits of AM in mind, with respect to the overall vehicle assembly, specific AM parts could then be cost effectively implemented.

SHOP: The focus on light weighting to extend the range of electric vehicle design is leading to increased use of aluminum and high-strength steel. How well-suited is additive manufacturing technology to working with such metals? Any challenges in particular that need to be addressed?

MANLEY: High strength aluminum, such as EOS Aluminum Al5X1 is a heat-treatable aluminum alloy designed for AM to offer a compelling combination of high strength and high elongation. The recommended single-step heat treatment does not require a water quench and enables robust part production. This makes Al5X1 well-suited for automotive components.

Traditional high strength steels on the other hand, currently don’t have a high demand in automotive components. There might also be a printability challenge regarding the carbon content of the materials. Also, the high strength steel derivates still have a higher price compared to traditional AM materials like AlSi10Mg but this will come down with demand.

Electronics successfully imbedded in a 3D-printed metal object by Etterplan. PHOTO courtesy Etterplan.

SHOP: Electric vehicles incorporate advanced electronics and sensors. How does additive manufacturing technology help with integration of these components right into the parts? 

MANLEY: EOS and Finnish Etteplan, have succeeded in 3D printing metal objects with embedded electronics inside the object in a way that enables mass production. This technology has enormous potential in the manufacturing industry. The first printed demo device has an integrated circuit board with sensors, and the metal shell of the piece acts as an antenna. To date, this kind of solution has been regarded as challenging, if not impossible, for conventional technology. Even if you don’t integrate the sensor during the printing process, AM can be extremely helpful to realize compact designs that allow easier integration of sensors.

SHOP: Supply chain flexibility can be a huge challenge as the pandemic proved. What role can additive manufacturing play in decentralizing manufacturing and reducing dependence on traditional supply chains?

MANLEY: Since AM doesn’t require hard tooling, it is much easier to shift production to alternate suppliers with AM capacity with the caveat that the process will need validation. AM also allows for distributed manufacturing, servicing both new parts and legacy spares, allowing for digital inventories.

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