Additive Manufacturing Update: The Shape of Metal

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by Noelle Stapinsky

Additive manufacturing is finally a player in the future of metalworking 


Let’s be honest, today’s 3D printing technology is awesome. To watch an object with complex geometries generated by a digital file built layer-by-layer fascinated us in the past, but now the technology known as additive manufacturing happens to be one of the fastest emerging technologies. 

It has already been widely implemented in the polymer industry, especially those playing in the plastic injection mould and blow mould industries. As this promising technology continues to evolve, so has the range of materials that can be manufactured with this process, shifting the focus to metal additive manufacturing, which has made rapid strides globally. 

According to Deloitte’s 3D Printing Predictions for 2019, metal printing could surpass plastic additive manufacturing—it’s predicted to represent more than half of 3D printing activity within the next two years. Interestingly, a 2019 report by technology research firm Frost & Sullivan forecasts metal 3D printing technologies and materials are expected to have a market value of $8 billion by 2022. 

For Canada’s metalworking industry, there are many opportunities, especially when it comes to designing fixtures and tooling or developing low-production volume, light-weighted metal parts. And while there are some early adoptors, there are still a lot of untapped opportunities. 

“Canada has a lot to offer in terms of metal additive manufacturing. We have fantastic research capabilities and a lot of smart academic people that are contributing,” says Mark Kirby, additive manufacturing business manager for Renishaw Canada, which designs and manufactures metal powder bed fusion additive manufacturing systems that produce a variety of metal components. The company also operates its Renishaw Additive Manufacturing Solutions Centre in Kitchener, Ont. “But there’s a lot of duplication, which is not necessarily the best use of our capabilities. I think we need to have more of a national strategy and start collaborating so we aren’t competing at an academic or market level.”

Simon Coulson, general manager of Mohawk College's IDEAWORKS, an institution that helps companies pursue additive opportunities while reducing the risk of trying this technology. Easing Entry
Many small to medium-sized shops see the opportunities this technology can deliver, but are waiting for the cost to come down, which is the biggest barrier to entry. This is why, with government support, Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters (CME) partnered with several industry associations, academic institutions and companies to strike a committee—dubbed Canada Makes—to  promote additive manufacturing at an institutional and industrial level, and to make it more accessible to smaller companies. 

“Canada Makes has been a big proponent in pushing additive manufacturing as the next wave of industry 4.0 manufacturing technologies,” says Simon Coulson, general manager of the additive manufacturing center at Mohawk College’s IDEAWORKS. “The technology is still in its infancy. And a lot of it is still very expensive compared to traditional manufacturing, especially when you start talking about metal additive manufacturing. Right now that’s the biggest barrier.”

Coulson says the next generation entering the manufacturing world believes this technology is the future. “But when you talk to the old guard of manufacturing, they’re still very hesitant to pick it up. Cost is a big factor, but also they don’t have the history or the knowledge of how to use it effectively.”

That’s where an institution like IDEAWORKS comes in. With its applied research and equipment, funded through federal grants, Coulson’s team and his students are helping companies pursue these new opportunities while reducing the risk of trying this technology. 

“A client can come to us with an idea that might be beneficial to additive manufacturing and we have the opportunity to educate them on what makes sense or doesn’t, and leverage grants to support experimentation in the technology. If a project is possible, both physically and financially, we can direct them to several companies that are running metal additive manufacturing machines on a commercial scale.” 

Using powder bed fusion technology, Coulson and his team works with stainless, tool steel, aluminum, titanium and other metals, as well as a wide range of polymers. 

“Since it’s so new, it’s hard to determine if the materials are challenging, or just haven’t been done yet,” he says. “We worked with McMaster and other universities on the development of new materials, and to date, anything we’ve tried has been successful.”

An EOS metal additive 3D printed part.For additive manufacturing, Coulson says the true transition is in the design aspects. “It’s this whole new design mentality called generative design. Traditionally when you discover a problem with a part, you design another and test it to see if it works. If it doesn’t, you redesign it and try it again,” he says. “The new design methodology—generative design—is where you set up a scenario, input stress, strain  and other mechanical loads into an imaginary volume and the software will generate a part that is optimized for that specific situation. The part you get is very organic looking. It will usually be lighter and stronger than the traditionally manufactured part, but you’ll have a geometry that can only be produced with additive.”

Layers of Success
Concord, Ont.-based Additive Metal Manufacturing partners with IDEAWORKS and Canada Makes. The company’s three founding partners, who started their additive manufacturing business in 2015, have decades of experience under their collective belts. “This technology, in our opinion, is a game changer for manufacturing,” says David Slimowitz, co-founder. “The whole world is going toward e-manufacturing and using digital data to perfect their process. We saw a huge opportunity of being in this space early on. This technology gives you the ability to produce a part in days, rather than months. What that means is speed to market, and depending on the adoption rate of your company, you’ll be able to produce parts quicker in the manufacturing industry.”

Today, Additive Metal Manufacturing specializes in tooling for the plastic injection and blow moulding industries, and parts and tooling for the automotive industry. “Everyone in automotive is starting to realize that electric cars are becoming a reality and they’re trying to reduce weight. We are one of the pioneers in reducing weight in certain components in electric cars,” says Slimowitz. “And we’ve just validated a new powder called Inconel 718, which gives us the opportunity to play in the oil and gas and nuclear industries.”

Slimowitz adds, “the problem in the industry at the moment is that the adoption rate is incredibly low, people are still skeptical about the technology. It’s a journey, and that journey starts at the design stage. How adaptive are your designers in thinking outside of the box? Because the more you think outside of that box, the more this technology will be inclined to cater to your needs.” 

The aerospace industry has been an early adopter to this technology as it tends to require lower volumes and is less cost sensitive. Coulson points out that GE created a fuel injector nozzle using additive manufacturing, which increased the robustness of the part. “Nowhere did they talk about making the part cheaper or lighter or easier to manufacture. But because they made this change, over the life of the aircraft, it’s going to be cheaper for the clients. The part might be more expensive, but the business case built around it shows that it will save the end customer money and make them more competitive.”

Renishaw’s Kirby agrees the adoption rate is slow, and points out many potential users feel the technology is changing so rapidly that they want to wait for something better, faster or cheaper to come along. 

“I have a little anecdote that would attempt to disprove that,” says Kirby. “The first of our machines that was installed at a Canadian academic facility was in 2013 at Nova Scotia Community College (NSCC). They just finished working on a project with Toronto-based Biome Renewables. Its core product is the PowerCone, a small rotor that retrofits to the front of a wind turbine to recover what would otherwise be wasted energy.”

According to Kirby, Biome went to NSCC with its PowerCone idea but for a tidal rotor. “NSCC contacted us with some technical questions about how to do some of the printing and how to make a big metal part faster to meet delivery time. We helped NSCC with the project and then Biome came up with a design for an entire tidal rotor that would be better if shaped differently. They came up with this very curvy rotor that was a couple meters in diameter. We printed it in sections and split the workload between our solution center and NSCC. This project was tested in Ireland a couple of months ago. My point is that it was all done on technology that’s six years old. People argue that if you had to go into production with such a product you wouldn’t be competitive. I say that you have to get to production first. I think additive is a massive opportunity. It’s not just getting my designs printed, but I can actually start to create markets that weren’t there before.”

Of course, as adaptation to this technology grows, the costs are coming down. Machines that would once cost many thousands are much more affordable—consumers can buy such technology on Amazon or even access it at a local public library. And as for metal additive technology, Coulson says the patents on powder bed fusion have recently expired, opening the door for other players to modify the technology and reduce costs. 

Traditional manufacturing will always have its place. But as we move towards e-manufacturing and software-driven automation, additive manufacturing is becoming a trusted technology for developing and improving manufactured products. 

It’s only a matter of time before customers start bringing printed parts through the shop door. SMT

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