Additive manufacturing is a relatively new manufacturing method which has become a key area of interest in multiple industrial sectors. Based on CAD models the process enables creating solid, yet highly complex, parts and push towards a tool-less manufacturing environment, with both improved quality and better efficiency in many cases.
Additive manufacturing (AM) is the process of joining materials to make objects from Computer-Aided Design (CAD) model data, as opposed to subtractive manufacturing methods where material is removed. Additive manufacturing is often a layer by layer process and is also called 3D printing, additive fabrication, or freeform fabrication.
Composites Manufacturing — Layer by layer
If you look at the composites industry, one can claim that creating a composite laminate is the original additive manufacturing process. The idea behind additive manufacturing is that you build up a structure layer by layer to form the complete part, rather than the traditional subtractive process of taking a block of something and removing material.
I have personally built composites structures; cutting the plies and laying them down layer by layer on shaped molds to make dish antennas or solar panels. The key thing you would notice is the pre-cut sheets are laid manually whereas in the AM the process, a machine lays down strips of material with very little human input.
Comparison of AM and Composites Manufacturing
One of the greatest benefits of AM is the low amount of pre- and post-processing required to get the finished part. AM starts with a blank canvas and, depending on the complexity, creates products without the need for finishing processes. This also means the amount of waste material is kept to a minimum. Composites manufacturing on the other hand requires a pre-made form for layup and is followed by some kind of curing and finishing steps. This makes AM very cost effective.
Closing the Gap
It should be said that composites have also witnessed automation. For the better part of three decades, very large aerospace structures have been built by large Automated Fiber Placement (AFP) machines. However, this automation has been very limited, and only economically viable in the aerospace industry, due to very high capital expenses and limited material available.
In contrast, industrial AM systems from Stratasys have made their way into many industries, due to their high accessibility. Additionally, there has been a slew of non-industrial AM systems (think desktop 3D printers) that have made their way into most Technical Centers, Universities, and Libraries; providing AM exposure to the future workforce.
The recent innovation in the Plug-n-play AFP system aims to bridge the gap and bring the advanced AFP machines to every Technical Center and University to provide this same AM exposure and experience for the future composites engineers. Additionally, the plug-n-play AFP systems are 100x times easier to acquire and install, and even easier to operate. This approach has the potential to bring automation in composites to thousands of SMEs struggling with workforce shortages.
Become the Change
If you are thinking of bringing composites manufacturing automation to your facility, check out Addcomposites. You might find the right solution for your automation need.