Tea, Earl Grey, Hot.

Source: I used a portion of this image at Wikimedia. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

What’s new?

An article from GlobalSpec Engineering360 combines some of my favorite topics: new materials, the element carbon, and additive manufacturing. This article was just one of many I read this week on additive manufacturing.

What does it mean?

Plastics and carbon nanotubes were combined in a new internal configuration to create a material with improved strength, toughness and stiffness, and lighter weight. Such a material could have significant application in replacing metals in vehicles.

One useful piece of technology in the Star Trek science fiction series was the replicator, used to create food, including Captain Picard’s Earl Grey tea. This article taught me that it was also used to create spare parts and items for consumption on the Holodeck simulation and that “By virtually eliminating material scarcity, replicator technology plays an important role in the moneyless human economy within the Star Trek universe.” This article expands even more about how it was used. The physical explanation (“matter-energy conversion”) is suitable for science fiction but not for science.

Regular readers of this blog know that I am interested in additive manufacturing. My interests include the technical aspects of the new materials and include the technical aspects of how the new materials are created, but also include the potential for changing supply chains, manufacturing, and our economy. While the abundance enabled by the Star Trek replicator is still science fiction, the future may involve using a limited number of feedstocks to create consumer products on demand, close to the final consumer. Your local big box store will be a manufacturing facility, turning carbon (and other materials) into products.

What does it mean for you?

Manufacturers should be excited about the potential for additive manufacturing to change their processes as well as the processes of their suppliers. The technology is changing the economics of additive manufacturing enough that it can now be used for small batches and larger batches as well, enabling customization in mass manufacturing.

But manufacturers should also be cautious: parts made with additive manufacturing are different. The article I cited above points out that the new material creates objects with different strength, toughness, stiffness, and weight. Careful thought must be given to the implications of these changes in use: for example, decreased weight may be a benefit for shipping, but may create issues in the ability of an object to remain stationary in wind. Is lighter weight lawn furniture always desirable? In addition, additive manufactured parts are usually created in layers and thus can tend to delaminate, with implications for durability.

Also, replacing conventionally made parts with those made by additive manufacturing can have other implications. Because additive manufacturing can create parts with shapes that were difficult to make by other manufacturing processes, an assembly of parts may possibly be made as one part, as explained here, with implications for the manufacturing work flow and for the workforce.

I often note that fasteners are a sometimes overlooked part of engineering design. This article explores how traditional fasteners (screws, for example) work with parts made with additive manufacturing and this article explains that the fastener may need to be selected to add strength to thinner parts made by additive manufacturing.

I hope that you share my excitement about additive manufacturing, but I also hope that you share my caution.

Where can you learn more?

While I subscribe to some email lists that tend toward coverage of a wide range of additive manufacturing, generally still in the research stage, applications of additive manufacturing that are actually being put into practice are probably more likely to be found in conferences and publications for that industry, such as the Food Automation and Manufacturing Conference and Expo. Food Technology Magazine had this 2020 article on how 3-D printing and other technologies may change the production of food.

Some sites that cover additive manufacturing, for example Additive Manufacturing Media, do have good articles on specific industries, such as this recent one on 3-D printing furniture.

I tend to use the phrase “additive manufacturing” as being more descriptive of the technology, but an Internet search should also try the term “3-D printing” since it is widely used.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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