What is additive manufacturing technology? How does the process work?

By Antonis Nanakoudis - June 13, 2019

Additive manufacturing is a relatively new manufacturing approach that has attracted the attention of many people and industries around the world due to its unlimited and promising potential. In this blog we will describe what Additive Manufacturing (AM) technology is and how it works and in a follow-up blog we will explain how SEM analysis can assist in improving the quality of the AM processes.

What is additive manufacturing?

Additive manufacturing, also known as 3D printing or rapid prototyping, according to its ASTM standard is the “process of joining materials to make objects from 3D model data, usually layer upon layer, as opposed to subtractive manufacturing methodologies, such as traditional machining”. Today, the term “additive manufacturing” is mostly used in industry markets, while 3D printing mostly refers to the consumer market.

Benefits of additive manufacturing technology

Look again at the definition of AM by the ASTM standards and you’ll see its major benefit has already been revealed. Conventional subtractive manufacturing uses processes that withdraw materials from a larger piece to form the final 3D object, while AM processes add materials only when needed.

The latter, combined with material reutilization, reduces the material waste involved in the creation of a 3D object, lowering its environmental footprint.

The other major advantage of AM compared to conventional manufacturing processes that have been used until now is the design freedom that it brings. In principle, everything that is designed with CAD products can be produced with additive manufacturing.

That of course enables customization, providing designers with the opportunity to offer specific solutions for every application. AM also enables a more extensive variety of highly complex structures to be created. It opens up new opportunities to innovate by adding new designs, or changing and/or revising versions of a product in a way that was not possible before. For example, new, more light-weight structures are being created to substitute bulkier products since AM allows parts to be designed with material present only where it needs to be. An example of this can be seen in Figure 1.

additive manufacturing technology

Figure 1: Titanium 3D-printed limbs, designed by William Root.

Moreover, AM offers
shorter production cycles, requires no special manufacturing tools other than the AM machine, and reduces labor time and (energy) costs.

Limitations of additive manufacturing technology

Of course, AM also has its limitations, mainly because it's still under development and therefore evolving. First of all, until now, AM did not seem relevant for mass production and showed certain limitations regarding scaling, material size and choice.

It has also been shown that in certain cases, post-processing of products is required to realize the correct surface finish and dimensional accuracy.

However, AM has captured the interest of many people and industries that are constantly working on finding solutions to these limitations and improving the process and the quality of the products designed using it.

Another factor that has had a negative effect on the rise of AM, is the potential loss of jobs in manufacturing. Of course, this is always the case with new technologies and hopefully people will adapt and develop the new skills that are essential for the new jobs that it will create.

Additive Manufacturing: Areas of application

Because of its great potential, AM has shown to be beneficial for a large variety of applications. In some areas, AM products are currently used in low-volume productions while in other areas, research is still going on to optimize the processes.

As a first step, additive manufacturing can be applied to producing models and prototypes during the development stage of a product, and later on, as a production of pilot series for specific applications up to low-volume production for certain products.

As a first application field, researchers are applying additive manufacturing processes for medical and dental applications. These include medical and surgical implants, prosthetics, bio-manufactured parts, and even pills.

It is evident that the main advantage of AM for such applications is its versatility and customization possibilities, allowing for tailored solutions within every use case.

Up to now, several AM designs are currently used in automotive (e.g. motor parts and cooling ducts), aerospace (e.g. turbine blades and fuel system parts) and in tooling. You can see examples of these products in Figure 2.


 Figure 2: Examples of AM products in a) Aerospace, b) Automotive and c) Medical applications.

Of course, there are many more applications in which 3D printing has been applied and/or will be applied in the future. Designs are currently used in education and research, construction, art and jewelry, sensors, and even apparel and clothing.

Obviously, as more people get involved in the research and development as well as quality control of AM products, new application areas will pop-up and AM processes will become common practice for a variety of applications and products.

Additive Manufacturing & SEM

As with every emerging technology, quality control of the entire process is an important task. Material characterization (e.g. particles) and quality control of the finished product — and everything in between —are all essential -to ensure the quality of the manufacturing process.

In a follow-up blog, we will describe how scanning electron microscopy (SEM) is a powerful tool for material characterization and quality control in additive manufacturing processes.

Until then, we'd like to point you to an interesting video on exactly that topic. It explains how Additive Industries, the world’s first dedicated equipment manufacturer for industrial metal additive manufacturing systems, uses SEM to obtain fast results in additive manufacturing.

In the video, Sandra Poelsma, Process Engineer, explains how Additive Industries uses a desktop SEM to quantify the morphology, chemical composition and particle size distribution of metal powders. Watch the free video here:

Watch AM & SEM in action

About the author

Antonis Nanakoudis is an application engineer for the Thermo Scientific Phenom Desktop SEM product range at Thermo Fisher Scientific. Antonis is extremely motivated by the capabilities of the Phenom Desktop SEM on various applications and is constantly looking to explore the opportunities that it offers for innovative characterization methods.

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