Q. ADDITIVE MANUFACTURING (ALSO KNOWN AS 3-D MANUFACTURING OR AM) IS A TREND THAT SEEMS HERE TO STAY. WHO IS TAKING ADVANTAGE OF IT AND WHY?
The industrial customers are using for room-temperature tooling for jigs and fixtures used on their factory shop floors. More specifically, the robotics/drone industry is starting to see how it can have integrated structure produced with AM technology. And the aerospace industry is using it for various types of tooling and for in-use parts (systems, interiors parts) that can go into airplanes.
From a business case perspective, AM is saving these customers cost and time, but perhaps the best part is the ability to create exceptionally lightweight tools and parts. That means less fatigue for the people who work with them. In the aerospace industry, it translates into fuel efficiency, which is especially important to manufacturers nowadays. Additionally, for drones that are operating off battery power, lighter weight systems mean they can operate longer.
Q. WHAT EMERGING INDUSTRIES DO YOU SEE USING AM IN THE NEXT 10 YEARS?
The big one is going to be the medical industry. First, you will see more custom medical devices (prosthetics) that you can tailor to the patient’s body. But even more exciting, perhaps, is that in terms of knee/hip replacements or other implants for humans, we may start using a material that has similar properties to human bone. Currently, the materials for these procedures are generally titanium or cobalt-based, and they are so much stronger than natural bone that if a patient falls, he or she is prone to breaking something else. A cross-section of human bone reveals a unique, organic structure, and this can be replicated with an AM machine. A bone scaffold or implant can be a niche/one-off creation that is unique to the patient’s body and tailored to allow the right blood flow and appropriate strength match. I’d estimate that custom medical devices/prosthetics will start expanding within the next five years; the implants are about five to 10 years out.