Q&A: Unlock a Bright Future With 3D Printing

Ben Schwauren, CTO and co-founder of Oqton, discusses how even the smallest advancements in 3D printing can unlock a bright future for factories that meets new industry demands.

Ben Schwauren, CTO and co-founder of Oqton, discusses how even the smallest advancements in 3D printing can unlock a bright future for factories that meets new industry demands.

Manufacturing.net: How can additive manufacturing lead to a more agile operation?

Ben Schrauwen: There are a few key ways that additive manufacturing can result in a more agile manufacturing operation. One commonly discussed is that additive hardware ‘doesn’t care’ about what it’s creating. A 3D printer generates thousands of unique pieces at an equal effort it takes to generate thousands of identical pieces. This allows manufacturers to remove cost and time barriers when setting up production, particularly for smaller batch sizes. Further, the complexity of a part is not an issue in an additive process. For example, parts with internal structures can be additively built as one piece, rather than multiple pieces that require assembly as via other methods, speeding production and also reducing opportunity for failure or error. The other important way that additive lends agility is in its ability to support rapid iteration. Small changes to the design file can immediately be implemented in the produced part, offering manufacturers increased opportunity to test, iterate and bring more valuable products to market, quicker.

Manufacturing.net: What would it take (skill, training, expense, etc) to see 3D printing at work in factories?

Ben Schrauwen: Additive technology has been at work in prototyping labs for decades, but it’s struggled to drop cost in order to make the shift into the production environment. Cost of the machine currently accounts for between 60 to 80 percent of total metal production AM expenses. But cost continues to decrease and machine quality increases as more competition enters the market. A bigger issue is that the machines and accompanying software tools are too hard to use, requiring lengthy training including expensive trial-and-error in order to become familiar. Additive tools have to become smarter on their own in order to take the burden off their operators. Skilled engineers shouldn’t have to repeatedly work through the same issues because the hardware or software isn’t intuitive.

Manufacturing.net: What changes can we expect to see in the industry if there is greater adoption of 3D printing?

Ben Schrauwen: Because the additive workflow is based on digital data at every step, as we apply AI to the process, we will gain the ability to monitor and assess the performance of each part as it is produced. This means manufacturers won’t have to wait for production to be completed to find out there’s an optimization that was missed, or recall or scrap large batches because inspection didn’t catch an issue until further on in the process. Manufacturers will also see increased performance from what they’re manufacturing, using complex geometries that aren’t possible through other methods – we see examples of this in lightweighting in aerospace and automotive, and the creation of highly effective heat exchangers that aren’t possible to manufacture through casting.

Manufacturing.net: How will additive manufacturing integrate with current manufacturing processes?

Ben Schrauwen: Additive has already proven to pair well with, and add value to traditional manufacturing methods. Additive processes and materials are used to quickly and effectively generate molds for sand casting and investment casting, as well as complex channels for conformal cooling molds that simply aren’t possible with subtractive methods. But manufacturing is still held back by its traditionally siloed processes. In order to get the most out of what additive—and other digital manufacturing processes—have to offer, these silos have to be taken down. Systems have to be open, be easily connected, and manufacturing hardware and software must communicate seamlessly just as we expect the apps and devices we use in our personal lives to work in harmony.

Manufacturing.net: Are any companies successfully embracing additive manufacturing?

Ben Schrauwen: Aerospace and automotive have made considerable strides in leveraging metal AM in production. For example, GE Aviation has shipped over 30,000 additively produced jet engine fuel nozzle tips and additive use in automotive is expanding outside of high-end racing or luxury vehicles to be adopted by Volkswagen and others. Additive is used for mass customization in the dental industry in materials from metals to polymers and ceramics for the creation of crowns, bridges and appliances. The next industry I think we’ll seeing additive take is in industrial machinery. These companies already produce low volume, highly customized parts. The value of additive to enable them to produce parts more quickly, and iterate and optimize their designs, is clear.

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