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3D printing becomes a production process at Bowman Additive Production

3D printing becomes a production process at Bowman Additive Production

Jacob Turner of Bowman Additive Production tackles some of the most frequently asked questions when it comes to production 3D printing.

Bowman International’s recently launched additive production division is leading the way in designing for and using 3D printing technology for production parts. Additive Manufacturing technology has been around since the 80s and has also been referred to as rapid prototyping and more recently 3D Printing (3DP). To date this technology has largely been focused on prototyping rather than producing end use products, components and parts.

Over the last few years, as material selections, manufacture speeds and part repeatability have improved, the industry’s focus has been pivoting towards Additive Production – 3D printing production parts. Bowman Additive Production (Bowman AP) is solely focused on offering 3DP as a production service and design specifically for production 3DP. 

As Bowman AP has been engaging with the engineering and industrial design community the same series of questions come up time and time again, especially the idea of producing finished parts rather than prototype parts through 3DP:

What is Additive Production?

Simply put, it is the use of 3D Printing technology as a produc-tion process to manufacture end use parts.

Which technology is best?

For the uninitiated 3D printing comes in literally dozens of different and sometimes competing technologies, each with its own distinct characteristics. Despite the different methods, all are fundamentally building up an object by bonding layers of material on top of each other to make a part.

While each technology has its distinctive features, in our experience the 3DP technology with most potential for production in polymers within the engineering sector is Selective Laser Sintering (SLS). Its main advantages being that it has some of the most consistent mechanical properties, best engineering grade materials, most repeatable results with relatively high output.

What about 3D printing in metal?

While metal 3D printing is making a lot of news, the technology is still relatively new. The potential for metal 3DP shares many of the features mentioned with respect to polymer 3DP however currently it remains extremely costly, slow, and inefficient, making its potential appli-cations much more limited than the more established polymer technologies. Bowman AP continues to follow the developments in this field closely and, as technologies improve and new applications arise, may well move into this field in the future. 

Isn’t 3D printing too slow for production?

Bowman AP currently uses EOS Formiga P1 SLS technology which is the German manufacturer’s most precise general use range of printers. 

The P1 machines have a build volume of 200 x 250 x 330mm but unlike most other 3DP technologies it is possible to fill this build volume with parts of various sizes (rather than just being the single largest part possible) with just a few millimetres between parts. So, to give some idea of output, to manufacture 10mm cubes, one machine could produce around 10,000 parts per day. While it may never compete with high speed injection moulding is it certainly a lot more than just a prototyping process.

With no need for expensive tooling and little or no setup costs 3DP enables relatively small runs of parts to also become economic to produce. What was previously not considered a viable production quantity now is. 

Why should I use AP?

As a general rule there are three key reasons why people choose AP. Some applications have only one of these attributes, others multiple:

Low volume:

  • No Tooling. Unlike injection moulding there is no tooling required for 3DP.
  • Very little setup cost. While traditional methods require setting up machines to make a specific part – AP allows multiple different parts to be manufactured simultaneously without additional setup.

Hard to machine/complex tools:

  • With multiple operations required to make a part it can get time consuming and costly.
  • Many parts require very complex multi process tooling for injection moulding which is very expensive.
  • Very low material wastage – subtractive manufacturing typically has high wastage. 

Complex forms:

  • Avoid assembly where parts would otherwise be manufactured in pieces due to complexity.
  • Parts not possible to make any other way.
  • No additional cost for complexity of design.
  • Composite design – add in inserts of other materials to give different properties.

Aren’t you limited to one material?

Yes – and no. Bowman AP primarily prints in Nylon 11 (PA1102 black) which is an excellent general engineering grade plastic, but that doesn’t exclude other materials from our products. One advantage of 3DP (particularly SLS) is the ability to ‘design in’ voids so other materials/components can be added such as bronze wear plates, standard nuts and bolts or other parts where additional strength or wear properties are required.

There are a number of materials available which are suitable for SLS technology but while the industry is in its early stages it is typically rare that you will find a machine running that particular material every day which can add significant cost and time delays to the development and production process described here. That said it still may be the best way for many projects anyway and this area will improve significantly in the next 3-5 years as adoption increases.

What are the limitations?

In the case of Bowman AP’s current capacity, tolerances are limited by layer thickness of 0.1mm, a laser beam diameter of 0.4mm and potentially a degree of irregular thermal shrinkage – similar to that experienced with injection moulding. Exact tolerances are highly part dependent but repeatability remains high. There is also a limit to surface finish without additional processing due to the nature of the process but for most cases this is acceptable.

How does 3DP affect the design process?

The design process is massively simplified in the case of additive production. For a simple product, taking a concept to a production component, the process could be as short as 48 hours. The prototypes are actually the printed production parts. Multiple iterations of a part can be manufactured simultaneously – this is especially useful when working with fits and tolerances. You can make a series of options and select the best option. Incorporating customer feedback and design modification can be added at almost any point without adding significant cost – even after launching a product.

Speed to market is a key benefit. A new product can be conceived, designed and be in the hands of customers in days or weeks where traditionally this would have taken months or years. And parts previously not economically viable to design or develop become viable with the combination of low batch costs and no tooling.

What is new about Bowman Additive Production?

Bowman AP is focused on production rather than prototyping. Rather than a bureau which simply turns a CAD file into a physical object Bowman AP’s team are looking to develop designs optimised for production using 3D print technology.  

Through its own product design and development Bowman AP has experience of every stage of the design and production process.

The additive production process is optimised by manufacturing multiple different parts simultan-eously. Bowman AP is pioneering the use of complex algorithms to optimise production output allowing one offs, just in time orders, scheduled orders and stock to be produced exactly when it is required, both for its own use and its customers’. 

Bowman International Ltd, Bowman AP’s owner, has decades of experience in solving engineering problems in addition to a full machine shop and extensive testing and inspection equipment. In addition to just in time manufacture Bowman has large stockholding capabilities. This allows even greater production optimisation and a faster service to its customers.

What is the future of 3D Printing?

The future potential for 3D printing is vast, especially as technology, materials, general awareness and availability continue to grow.

So is 3D printing the future? No, not entirely, but it is a part of the future. Additive production will never completely eliminate more traditional production techniques but as the technology continues to develop and industries embrace its potential, it will increasingly become a staple of the production toolbox.

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