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Why a Focus on Quality is Needed to Grow the Additive Manufacturing Industry

by Ron Fisher, Sigma Labs

In a recent podcast interview for SME Media, editor Chris Mahar asked me an intriguing question: Why, in your opinion, hasn’t the metal additive manufacturing (AM) industry catapulted into mass industrialization, and how can Sigma solve that problem? I will get to the second part of the question shortly but first, let’s discuss the industry-wide issue.

Additive manufacturing is receiving significant attention globally, reflected in the volume of activity in both research and large corporate investment being carried out to support the industrialization of the technology for the aerospace, medical device, automotive, oil & gas, power generation and industrial markets.

According to a recent Forbes article, the Wohlers Report 2020 states that the 2019 additive manufacturing (AM) industry (also known as 3D Metal Printing), consisting of all AM products and services worldwide, grew 21.2 percent to $11.867 billion.

And while this number isn’t so impressive when compared to the huge international manufacturing footprint, 20-plus percent is a strong rate of growth – especially when you consider that it wasn’t that long ago that our industry was measured in the hundreds of millions. Assuming that we and our AM industry colleagues focus on the challenges I talk about below, the future is wide-open for growth, profitability and overall economic impact.

One factor affecting growth is the portrayal of some highly publicized applications that imply that the technology is now firmly established. However, this is not the case and there are still significant barriers like cost, materials, machine constraints, and process understanding and insight. To date, the cost-benefit analysis of AM is highly application specific and incorporates an element of uncertainty, compounded by the lack of well-rounded AM knowledge filtering throughout the industry. As we all know, when the costs of any manufacturing process cannot be accurately predicted, both production and finance staff become very nervous.

The lack of materials available for AM either inhibits the manufacture of certain parts or requires them to be redesigned for different or non-optimal materials. Likewise, machine bed size and the speed of AM processing are limitations for mass manufacturing applications. However, OEM’s are quickly addressing this constraint, with larger machine and multiple laser systems aimed at serial production.

Of course, from Sigma Labs’ viewpoint, in-situ monitoring systems are crucial to ensuring good quality statistics. As Britannica.com describes, “In situ measurements require that the instrumentation be located directly at the point of interest and in contact with the subject of interest. In contrast, remote sensors are located some distance away from the subject of interest.”

At present you may have very little understanding and insight as to what is happening inside the machine during the printing process. As a result, high levels of waste and low levels of productivity are not uncommon.

In-Process Quality Assurance - the Role of PrintRite3D®

To combat these waste, productivity and efficiency challenges, the AM industry will require closed-loop systems that compensate for in-build fluctuations. Sigma Labs’ PrintRite3D<sup<® solution was created for exactly this purpose. It adds significant value to OEMs and manufacturers because it increases production yield of 3D metal manufactured parts, cuts post-process quality inspection costs and reduces time to market. These are big factors in enabling true industrialization of metal AM.

PrintRite3D® allows the user to see, analyze and ensure the quality of the 3D-printed part while it is being made. It saves time and money by reducing or even eliminating the need for destructive testing or inconsistent scanning of complex parts. Users can adjust the process in real time to further assure quality and will gain confidence, consistency and greater levels of predictability from one build to the next. Importantly, manufacturers can compare each part to established baselines during the build (not after), reducing post-process time and boosting process repeatability. Users will also be able to view potential part anomalies and their locations and reduce the amount of costly CT scans required.

PrintRite3D uses multiple sensors and data acquisition and computing hardware along with our proprietary software for comprehensive quality management of AM processes. The system can be adapted as a third party retrofit to any manufacturer’s 3D Metal printing machine and is also available as an OEM licensed package to metal AM machine manufacturers.

I realize that a blog article is not sufficient to explain the technology of how PrintRite3D achieves these important quality benefits. I am happy to arrange a personal demonstration if you send an email to sales@SigmaLabsInc.com.

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