Technologies, Potential, and Implications of Additive Manufacturing

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* Report : Could 3D Printing Change the World? Technologies, Potential, and Implications of Additive Manufacturing. By Thomas Campbell, Christopher Williams, et al. Atlantic Council. Strategic foresight INITIATIVE. October 2011.



"AM builds products layer-bylayer— additively—rather than by subtracting material from a larger piece of material like cutting out a landing gear from a block of titanium—that is, “subtractive” manufacturing. This seemingly small distinction—adding rather than subtracting—means everything.

• Assembly lines and supply chains can be reduced or eliminated for many products. The final product—or large pieces of a final product like a car—can be produced by AM in one process unlike conventional manufacturing in which hundreds or thousands of parts are assembled. And those parts are often shipped from dozens of factories from around the world—factories which may have in turn assembled their parts from parts supplied by other factories.

• Designs, not products, would move around the world as digital files to be printed anywhere by any printer that can meet the design parameters. The Internet first eliminated distance as a factor in moving information and now AM eliminates it for the material world. Just as a written document can be emailed as a PDF and printed in 2D, an “STL” design file can be sent instantly to the other side of the planet via the Internet and printed in 3D.

• Products could be printed on demand without the need to build-up inventories of new products and spare parts.

• A given manufacturing facility would be capable of printing a huge range of types of products without retooling—and each printing could be customized without additional cost.

• Production and distribution of material products could begin to be de-globalized as production is brought closer to the consumer.

• Manufacturing could be pulled away from “manufacturing platforms” like China back to the countries where the products are consumed, reducing global economic imbalances as export countries’ surpluses are reduced and importing countries’ reliance on imports shrink.

• The carbon footprint of manufacturing and transport as well as overall energy use in manufacturing could be reduced substantially and thus global “resource productivity” greatly enhanced and carbon emissions reduced.

• Reduced need for labor in manufacturing could be politically destabilizing in some economies while others, especially aging societies, might benefit from the ability to produce more goods with fewer people while reducing reliance on imports.

• The United States, the current leader in AM technology, could experience a renaissance in innovation, design, IP exports, and manufacturing, enhancing its relative economic strength and geopolitical influence."


The Future of Additive Manufacturing

"Recent reports and developments suggest that AM development is gaining momentum and could be reaching a take-off point within the next decade. Hints of the future in a recent Economist, cover story, “Print me a Stradivarius,” captured imaginations throughout the policy world.5 A 2010 Ganter report6 identified 3D Printing as transformational technology in the Technology Trigger phase of the Hype Cycle7 (i.e., only 5-10 years from mass adoption).

While those involved in AM research might argue that it instead is emerging from a “Trough of Disillusionment” towards a “Slope of Enlightenment,” two recent significant advances have ignited broad interest in AM:

• Direct Metal AM: Significant improvements in the direct additive manufacture of metal components have been made in the past five years. Engineers are now able to fabricate fully-functional components from titanium and various steel alloys featuring material properties that are equivalent to their traditionally manufactured counterparts. As these technologies continue to improve, we will witness greater industrial adoption of AM for the creation of end use artifacts.

• Desktop-scale 3D Printers: As direct metal AM is breaking longstanding technology acceptance barrier related to materials, the recent emergence of desktop-scale 3D printers is eliminating cost barriers.8 Thanks to expiring intellectual property and the open-source (and crowd-source) nature of these projects, AM technology can now be purchased for around $1,000. Because of this low price point, interest in 3D Printing has skyrocketed as more and more hobbyists are able to interact with a technology that, in the past, was relegated to large design and manufacturing firms. This has democratized manufacturing, thus resembling the early stages of the Apple I’s impact on personal computing.

Thus, the 3D printing revolution is occurring at both the high end and the low end, and converging toward the middle.

One end of the technology spectrum involves expensive high-powered energy sources and complex scanning algorithms. The other end is focused on reducing the complexity and cost of a well-established AM process to bring the technology to the masses. Major advances will continue to be made in both directions in the next five years. “Direct metal” processes will continue to advance as process control and our understanding of fundamental metallurgy improves. These cutting-edge technologies will gain broader acceptance and use in industrial applications as the necessary design and manufacturing standards emerge. On the other hand, the quality and complexity of parts created by the desktop-machines will continue to improve while the cost declines. These systems will also see broader dissemination in the next 5 years—first through school classrooms and then into homes. While these two technical paths will continue to develop separately—with seemingly opposing end goals—we can expect to see a convergence, in the form of a small-scale direct metal 3D printer, in the next few decades." (