Action 4: Idea, Light, Object

Additive manufacturing using powder bed fusion takes this process to its logical extreme. Loaded with metal powder, the machine simply waits for instructions and then produces whatever is required. The designers’ ideas are immediately brought to life. “3D printing is the pure embodiment of data-based manufacturing,” says Gebhardt. With such tremendous freedom to choose geometries, designers can create new and improved parts. That's exactly what happened at Grindaix, a German manufacturer of coolant supply systems that was determined to improve its coolant nozzles using 3D printing. These nozzles distribute lubricoolant on the part during ID cylindrical grinding. Now they are designed based on bionic principles — and the benefits of this new approach are remarkable. “We can create nozzles with curved channels designed for optimum flow,” says Dirk Friedrich, owner and CEO of Grindaix. “They deliver the right doses of coolant to exactly the right place on the part with lower pressure losses. Our customers benefit because they can run their grinding process faster and even achieve higher quality.”

“We're currently seeing a transition from the mass production of many parts to the mass production of individual parts,” emphasizes Gebhardt. This change has not gone unnoticed by contract manufacturers, and some of them are seizing the opportunities it offers. One company has been using 3D printing since 2004. It started with rapid prototyping, but progressed quickly. The company gets a lot of jobs that involve printing finished parts in its laser metal fusion machine. Products include spinal implants with a fine lattice structure that promotes tissue growth. The contract manufacturer can produce between 120 and 180 implants simultaneously in 20 variants with just one load of metal powder. That's certainly a step closer to mass production.

Other customers want to produce components as one piece. The manufacturer often sees specialist nozzles and connection plates for industrial automation consisting of multiple individual component parts that all must be manufactured in different ways and then joined together. They simply print the complete part as a single piece. And in many cases, they can make it better or more compact.

OEMs are increasingly discovering the design freedom 3D printing offers, and contract manufacturers with the right machinery benefit from this trend. At the same time, more and more engineers have the expertise required to design parts specifically for 3D printing. Design know-how will be the key to 3D printing — and we're only at the beginning of that road. Two other key tasks are critical for the future: the need to conduct more research into the core process and the need to understand how lasers and metal powders interact. And it will be even more important to automate machines and integrate them into the manufacturing chain.

The Tool of the Data Society

Gebhardt has a strong hunch as to which tools will be needed in these manufacturing chains: “Nobody knows exactly what additional requirements will emerge in the field of connected manufacturing, but my personal feeling is that laser systems are a great way to prepare for whatever lies ahead. There are simply so many cases where if anything can do it, it's a laser.”

When the laser was introduced in the 1960s, some people said it was a tool looking for an application. Now it appears it may have finally found its purpose as the tool of data-driven digital manufacturing and Industry 4.0.

This article was written by Klaus Löffler, Managing Director of Trumpf Lasertechnik GmbH, Schramberg, Germany, and Trumpf Laser- und Systemtechnik GmbH, Ditzingen, Germany. For more information, Click Here .