Video: What Is Additive Manufacturing?

What is additive manufacturing's role? What sort of parts are made through additive manufacturing? And will this process replace machining? Peter Zelinski responds to these and other questions.


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​What is additive manufacturing? What is its role? What sorts are parts are made through additive manufacturing? Will this process replace machining? Peter Zelinski, editor in chief of Additive Manufacturing, responds to these and other questions. 


What is additive manufacturing (AM)?

Additive manufacturing is 3D printing. Instead of molding a part or machining it, AM involves technology that fuses the material, maybe using a laser in the case of metal, in order to build up the part one minute layer at a time.

What is AM good for?

Because the part is built up instead of being machined from the outside or molded, additive manufacturing makes it possible to produce forms that maybe wouldn't be possible to make in any other way. Possibilities include parts that have complex internal channels, parts with lattice or honeycomb structures on the inside for weight savings. AM makes it possible to customize a part, changing the details at the last minute because there's no dedicated mold tooling. Also, additive manufacturing can eliminate a lot of assembly work because a part that might be assembled from a lot of smaller components could be grown as a single piece instead.

What sorts of parts are produced through AM?

Additive manufacturing makes a variety of end-use production parts, including jet engine components, other aircraft parts, medical devices, surgical implants. Additive is also used to make mold components that actually improve the molding process because the cooling channels, instead of being straight drilled holes, can be grown to conform to the shape of the mold surface.

What are the limitations facing AM?

Additive manufacturing as a production option is still in its infancy. The number of users and applications is growing but still small. Over time, AM machines will become faster, their build envelopes will get bigger, the processing of various materials will be better understood. But the thing that will really help additive manufacturing advance is designers becoming more aware of the freedoms and possibilities that additive manufacturing brings them. The established rules of what forms are manufacturable have, in a lot of ways, now changed.

Does AM replace machining?

When people compare additive manufacturing and machining, what they forget is how capable modern machine tools are. A part that is machined effectively today probably will still be machined tomorrow. Additive manufacturing will replace machining for some parts, but the better way to think about additive is as a complementary process. One, because in metal a part produced additively probably is still going to need finish machining, but also, two, because what additive really does is expand the range of designs that manufacturing is capable of producing.

Additive manufacturing will be part of the future. How large a share of production additive manufacturing will account for is unknown. How quickly it will advance is unknown. But we will see additive manufacturing take its place as an established, accepted production option alongside molding, machining and other processes. In the future, additive manufacturing will account for some significant share of the way that parts are made.