Introduction To Additive Fabrication
Additive fabrication refers to a class of manufacturing processes, in which a part is built by adding layers of material upon one another. These processes are inherently different from subtractive processes or consolidation processes. Subtractive processes, such as milling, turning, or drilling, use carefully planned tool movements to cut away material from a work piece to form the desired part. Consolidation processes, such as casting or molding, use custom designed tooling to solidify material into the desired shape.
Additive processes, on the other hand, do not require custom tooling or planned tool movements. Instead, the part is constructed directly from a digital 3-D model created through Computer Aided Design (CAD) software. The 3-D CAD model is converted into many thin layers and the manufacturing equipment uses this geometric data to build each layer sequentially until the part is completed. Due to this approach, additive fabrication is often referred to as layered manufacturing, direct digital manufacturing, or solid freeform fabrication.
The most common term for additive fabrication is rapid prototyping. The term “rapid” is used because additive processes are performed much faster than conventional manufacturing processes. The fabrication of a single part may only take a couple hours, or can take a few days depending on the part size and the process. However, processes that require custom tooling, such as a mold, to be designed and built may require several weeks.
Subtractive processes, such as machining, can offer more comparable production times, but those times can increase substantially for highly complex parts. The term “prototyping” is used because these additive processes were initially used solely to fabricate prototypes. However, with the improvement of additive technologies, these processes are becoming increasingly capable of high-volume production manufacturing, as will be explored in the section on applications.
Additive fabrication offers several advantages, listed below.
Speed – As described above, these “rapid” processes have short build times. Also, because no custom tooling must be developed, the lead time in receiving parts is greatly reduced.
Part complexity – Because no tooling is required, complex surfaces and internal features can be created directly when building the part. Also, the complexity of a part has little effect on build times, as opposed to other manufacturing processes. In molding and casting processes, part complexity may not affect the cycle times, but can require several weeks to be spent on creating the mold. In machining, complex features directly affect the cycle time and may even require more expensive equipment or fixtures.
Material types – Additive fabrication processes are able to produce parts in plastics, metals, ceramics, composites, and even paper with properties similar to wood. Furthermore, some processes can build parts from multiple materials and distribute the material based on the location in the part.
Low-volume production – Other more conventional processes are not very cost effective for low-volume productions because of high initial costs due to custom tooling and lengthy setup times. Additive fabrication requires minimal setup and builds a part directly from the CAD model, allowing for low per-part costs for low-volume productions.
With all of these advantages, additive fabrication will still not replace more conventional manufacturing processes for every application. Processes such as machining, molding, and casting are still preferred in specific instances, such as the following:
Large parts – Additive processes are best suited for relatively small parts because build times are largely dependent upon part size. A larger part in the X-Y plane will require more time to build each layer and a taller part (in the Z direction) will require more layers to be built. This limitation on part size is not shared by some of the more common manufacturing methods. The cycle times in molding and casting processes are typically controlled by the part thickness, and machining times are dependent upon the material and part complexity. Manufacturing large parts with additive processes is also not ideal due to the current high prices of material for these processes.
High accuracy and surface finish – Currently, additive fabrication processes can not match the precision and finishes offered by machining. As a result, parts produced through additive fabrication may require secondary operations depending on their intended use.
High-volume production – While the production capabilities of additive processes are improving with technology, molding and casting are still preferred for high-volume production. At very large quantities, the per-part cost of tooling is insignificant and the cycle times remain shorter than those for additive fabrication.
Material properties – While additive fabrication can utilize various material types, individual material options are somewhat limited. As a result, materials that offer certain desirable properties may not be available. Also, due to the fabrication methods, the properties of the final part may not meet certain design requirements. Lastly, the current prices for materials used in additive processes are far greater than more commonly used materials for other processes.
Applications of Additive Fabrication:
Additive fabrication processes initially yielded parts with few applications due to limited material options and mechanical properties. However, improvements to the processing technologies and material options have expanded the possibilities for these layered parts. Now, additive fabrication is used in a variety of industries, including the aerospace, architectural, automotive, consumer product, medical product, and military industries. The application of parts in these industries is quite vast.
For example, some parts are merely aesthetic such as jewelry, sculptures, or 3D architectural models. Others are customized to meet the user’s personal needs such as specially fitted sports equipment, dental implants, or prosthetic devices. The following three categories are often used to describe the different application of additive fabrication and may be applied to all of the above industries.
Rapid prototyping – Prototypes for visualization, form/fit testing, and functional testing
Rapid tooling – Molds and dies fabricated using additive processes
Rapid manufacturing – Medium-to-high volume production runs of end-use parts