So should makers of injection-moulding machines, milling stations and tooling be worried about this burgeoning technology with a wow factor? CRDM is busy but in general its ALM machines are making low-volume parts in high value-added applications in sectors such as automotive. It also supplies low-volume parts for aerospace and for some specialised applications such as metrology and scientific devices.
Bennett says: “This works where producing tooling would be very expensive and capital-intensive. Manufacturing the parts on a one-off basis means the part price is higher, but there’s no capital expenditure to worry about.” Somewhat ironically, the company is also using ALM to create complex tooling for injection-moulding machines.
But Bennett says it is important to recognise the limitations of additive manufacturing. “I think when people are first exposed to ALM and get to grips with its capability there is this super enthusiasm that it’s a paradigm shift and everything’s going to be made this way. Unfortunately with the technology as it stands today there are some inherent limitations with what you can do with it,” he says. For example, a typical ALM machine processing plastics is accurate to 150µ, whereas an injection-mould tool can be 20µ or better. Another crucial limitation is speed: a 28-impression injection-mould tool can make 28 items every four seconds.
Bennett says: “With ALM you can make things in parallel. It’s possible to make the machine build things together, but it’s at least 100 times slower and can be as much as 1,000 times slower. So it doesn’t scale up well when you look at some of the manufacturing operations you might like to use it for.” Further, the technology is not capable of producing some of the finishes expected on products. Bennett says: “That means more time and cost, especially if labour is brought in to carry out finishing by hand.”
So it looks, for the time being, that ALM is occupying a small – but steadily growing – niche of manufacturing industry. It may be that the genuine revolution will be in 3D printers for the home. CRDM has an eye on the possibilities here and has signed up to be one of the distributors of Hewlett Packard’s latest small-scale 3D printer.
These machines, some believe, could be embraced by consumers in a manner similar to laser printers – or computers – with costs having dropped to around £10,000. Bennett says: “People might think this is far-fetched – why on earth would anyone want a 3D printer in their home? – but I think that is quite likely to happen over the next few years. These machines will proliferate and become more affordable and you’ll see more and more of them.” Such machines are already making inroads into the CAD seat market, with 5,000 units sold, Bennett says: “There will be a lot of machines sold to accompany CAD stations.”
Something that would constitute a paradigm shift is consumers printing products sold to them directly by designers, obviating the need for a factory, mass production, and distribution. The internet and the advent of 3D printing for consumers makes that sort of relationship possible, says Bennett.
Take, as an example, toy soldiers. Traditionally these would have been designed and licensed for manufacture before being shipped to a shop. Now you could have a designer at one end of the country who comes up with a design, sells it on the web to a consumer at the other end of Britain, who downloads it and prints it on a 3D printer.
Bennett concludes: “It means the supply chain has changed completely to one where the designer gets paid like a songwriter for every design they sell, rather than the selling power being in the hands of the manufacturer and the designer only being paid once.
“You’re cutting out a massive section of the supply chain.”