Audi’s half-scale model of its classic Grand Prix car, the 1936 Auto Union Type C.

Hope or hype? 3D tech revealed

Everyone’s talking about 3D printing, or ‘additive manufacturing’ as some prefer to call it. But when will the technology actually break through into the mainstream, and what are the implications? Seco’s Head of Research and Development, Anders Ericsson, takes a closer look.

When a little over a year ago, Audi showed off a half-scale model of its classic Grand Prix car, the 1936 Auto Union Type C, it wasn’t the car itself that attracted the greatest interest. Rather, it was the ‘printer’. The car was one of the first to be created through additive manufacturing or what’s sometimes called 3D-printing technology. At the same time, Audi signaled that it was now investigating new opportunities for printing out complex components directly from “powder to metal”.

A “paradigm shift within manufacturing” or not?

The Audi example is just one of many of the increasing number of uses for additive manufacturing (AM). Advocates highlight the fact that the technology allows for the metal industry to go from production-driven design to design-driven production, that lead-times will be cut for the development of new products, and that there is now new potential for producing components featuring complex geometries. Some even call the technology a “paradigm shift within manufacturing”. But Anders Ericsson, Head of Research and Development at Seco, is keen to slightly downplay the technology’s immediate significance for the metal working industry.

“AM is clearly an extremely interesting technology for many of our customers,” he says. “In some cases, it can replace roughing, but we don’t think that the technology will replace the bulk of finishing operations any time within the next 15 years.”

If you go back 20 years, many thought net shape forming was going to be the new production technology that to some degree would replace traditional metal cutting. The method involves creating components that are very close to their final form. But while net shape forming is today widely used across the industry, it hasn’t become the revolution that many expected.

“You can draw a parallel with this and with additive manufacturing, today,” says Ericsson. “Everyone is talking about the technology, but we don’t really know where it will lead. But, having said that, I still believe that additive manufacturing has greater potential for metals than net shape forming, primarily because AM is currently being successfully used with complex plastic components and because digitalization will work as a key enabler.”

Opportunities and challenges

Up until now, it has been the medical sector and, to some extent, the aviation sector that have made progress with additive manufacturing within areas traditionally dependent on the metalworking industry. The method has also been effective in the medical sector in producing small runs of complex, tailor-made components such as prostheses and implants.

“On the other hand, it is currently rarely effective to use AM for mass production of metal components,” says Ericsson. “The cost per-component is much too high. The technology needs to become 10 to 20 times faster for it to have a major impact.”

In terms of the characteristics of the components produced, additive-manufactured products can often approach those of solid metal items, according to Ericsson.

“You can, for example, get equivalent characteristics in terms of bending rigidity,” he says. “But at the microscopic level, when the material is fine machined, it becomes clear that you need to change the machining methodology in order to carry out effective machining. We’re currently seeing this phenomenon in something like 30 percent of machining cases.”

Seco Tools – at the front line

This is where Seco often comes into the discussion with its customers around the world, solving the challenges that come along with machining in terms of the characteristics of the material and the choice of work tool.

Ericsson advises taking a ‘dare to dream’ approach and beginning to conduct tests using AM methods for carefully selected products. Seco has itself begun using AM to produce some metal components in its own products, he notes.

“At Seco, we’re choosing to see AM as an opportunity and as an extremely interesting technology for our customers. We realise that, with the broad and deep competence that Seco has within machining, we can work closely with our customers and propose wholistic solutions that include AM and that help create an efficient production system for them.”

 

By Per-Ola Knutas
Photos by Jonas Gauffin, Audi
Illustrations by Anil Yanik

Anders Ericsson

Anders Ericssons’ advice regarding AM

Begin testing
There are component suppliers where you can get additive-manufactured components.

Look at the flow
Look at the entire process flow in your production process and analyse where it is efficient and where there’s a good case to be made for using AM.

Talk to your tool supplier
Conduct a dialog with your work tools supplier and use their expert knowledge to establish the best solution for fine machining and the entire production process.

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