Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Article Type: Editorial From: Rapid Prototyping Journal, Volume 17, Issue 5
As I write this editorial, the final year students on our industrial design programme are busy completing the physical prototypes for their major design projects. Year on year, we are seeing an increase in the proportion of students using additive manufacturing (AM) technologies to build some or all of the main components in their prototypes. As a result, our Connex 500 machine is currently operating around the clock at full capacity with some of the builds lasting over 40 hours. It seems that many of our students are using the opportunities offered by AM to explore more complex and adventurous product designs, knowing that they will be able to create functional prototypes within the tight timescale available. One reason why this is feasible is that in our educational environment, we are able to keep the cost of prototypes very low. We only charge students for the cost of materials used, but even then, some of them still complain about the high cost of building larger parts. If we charged for machine depreciation, human labour and other running costs then I expect the students would baulk at paying a price probably five to eight times greater. I wonder what will happen when they move into industry and whether or not some of their innovation will be quenched by the higher cost of building prototypes. Of course, commercial companies have more money to spend on models than self-funding students, but I still worry somewhat about the relatively high cost of producing AM parts.
The thought that occurred to me recently is the manner in which computer numerical control (CNC) machining responded to some of the benefits offered by so-called “rapid tooling”. Tooling made using AM initially showed substantial time-saving and sometimes cost-saving when compared to CNC programming and machining. However, as subtractive manufacturing of tooling became easier through automated programming and verification, much of this advantage disappeared. As a result, AM tooling is now used primarily for specialist applications where complex geometry (such as intricate internal cooling channels) is of the utmost importance. It could be argued that a huge market opportunity (for mainstream tooling applications) is currently being missed due to the marginalisation of AM tooling into niche markets.
And that brings me to the point I want to make. AM is an expensive technology to use for a number of reasons, high cost of machines, high material costs and expensive maintenance contracts being amongst them. This makes the cost of building prototypes relatively expensive and even when different cost models are used during production of end-use components, these too are still relatively expensive, depending on the numbers being produced. It means, similarly to AM tooling but for different reasons, AM of end-use products is also being marginalised into niche markets. These include small batch manufacture, highly complex geometries, personalised products and in future, functionally graded materials. If conventional subtractive or forming processes can “up their game” to match some of the advantages of AM then this marginalisation could increase. We might never see AM entering into widespread use for mainstream manufacture. I believe that cost of production has a major part to play in this and we need to see more technological research into various methods for reducing this, e.g. faster build times. However, I expect the real breakthrough would come through an increased market for AM machines, which would enable vendors to reduce their prices. This is a bit of a “chicken and egg” situation since lower prices require larger market penetration and vice versa. We cannot expect AM machine vendors to compromise their profitability until this happens and so research into innovative business models is also necessary. This is an area of research not widely represented within the Rapid Prototyping Journal archives but one which we would like to see more of in future.