Additive Manufacturing, also known as 3-D printing, is an emerging technology that has the potential to revolutionize product realization on a global scale. The Economist magazine likened the emergence of additive manufacturing to the start of the third industrial revolution. This technology will have profound impacts on competitiveness and national security.
Additive manufacturing is a process that starts with raw material and a digital design of a component. Then, layer by layer, the part is created from the bottom up, leaving behind virtually no waste product and using equipment that, in an industrial sense, can be very benign. This technology gives a customer the power to create a complex three-dimensional product using a digital file and a machine the size of a double wide refrigerator in a matter of hours. The process is:
Additive manufacturing has broad application. Robert McEwan, general manager of Airfoils and Manufacturing Technologies at GE Aviation, believes that within our lifetime, at least 50% of the engine will be made by additive manufacturing. (Wohlers: 2012) Gun enthusiasts are using digital files readily print fully functional firearms in their homes. The medical community is harnessing additive manufacturing for custom prosthetics and medical implants. For the warfighter, additive manufacturing has the potential for enabling replacement of legacy parts and electronics and even remote mobile fabrication of key components. Finally, additive manufacturing will result in components and systems with radically improved performance in areas ranging from structural materials to RF devices.
Metal-based AM is poised to move from a focus on prototypes, repair of parts, and production of non-critical parts to a focus on direct critical part production. When this occurs, additive manufacturing is going to completely change how we view the design and production of metal parts. Companies and laboratories will need to turn their attention to the synthesis, processing, properties, and performance of the materials that will fundamentally determine the success or failure of direct part production. (Wohlers: 2011)