Additive manufacturing (AM) is one of the hottest areas in parts fabrication. Interest is high, research dollars are being spent and company stocks are attracting investor attention. Why? First, because AM has moved beyond its initial role as a prototyping tool to a process that can build finished parts.
AM technologies — stereolithography, fused deposition modeling (FDM), laser sintering (LS), material extrusion, direct metal deposition and more — were able from their beginnings to accurately form complex, three-dimensional parts directly, without tooling or touch labor. They build them up in stacked, horizontal layers from digital design files (hence, the moniker “3-D printing”). But those early technologies came with some technical challenges that — particularly in the composites industry — limited their utility.
Although they could produce a part, or multiple small parts, faster than many molding processes, early AM devices used low-end, unreinforced commodity thermoplastics or metals. In addition, machine build enclosures were small, limiting part size. Most importantly, they could easily duplicate part dimensions within specified tolerances but rarely delivered the mechanical properties necessary in a finished part. In recent years, however, refined 3-D printers have built parts from a wider range of tougher, stronger materials. … (Read more)