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The rise of additive layer manufacturing.

A RECENT EXPLOSION OF MAINSTREAM MEDIA COVERAGE HAS FIRMLY PUT ADDITIVE LAYER MANUFACTURING (ALM) IN THE SPOTLIGHT. BUT WHAT IS THE SIGNIFICANCE FOR THE PLASTICS INDUSTRY? HERE, JAMES BRADBURY FROM THE CENTRE FOR ADDITIVE LAYER MANUFACTURING (CALM) AT THE UNIVERSITY OF EXETER, WRITES EXCLUSIVELY FOR BP&R MORE ABOUT THE TECHNOLOGY AND MATERIALS AND HOW THE PLASTICS INDUSTRY CAN BENEFIT FROM ADOPTING THE TECHNOLOGY.

With an estimated worth of 1.5bn [pounds sterling] in 2013--predicted to double by 2018 (i)--the meteoric rise of the additive layer manufacturing (ALM) industry has been the subject of much media hype. As interest within a range of sectors has increased, there has been a similar growth in enthusiasm among hobbyists, with sales of personal 3D printers for the home having increased by 575 percent between 2010 and 2013 (ii).

It is no coincidence that all the 3D printing kits for the home are polymeric. Although ALM utilises a wide range of materials, including metals, ceramics, composites and waxes, polymers are by far the easiest and cheapest materials compatible with the technology. This is reflected in the statistics--last year, 85 percent of all ALM systems were polymeric. (iii) In the same year, thermoplastic powders for laser sintering were estimated to be worth 67 million [pounds sterling], (iv) and approximately 1.25 million kilograms of powder was sold for laser sintering. (v)

There are a growing number of high temperature, high performance polymers available to use for ALM, including acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS), polylactic acid (PLA), polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) and polyether ether ketone (PEEK). Meanwhile, applications are seemingly endless--including brackets for electrical systems for aerospace and defence vehicles, optimised fuel systems for the high-end automotive sector and complex airfoil and impellers for the oil and gas industries. Certain polymers are ideal for creating medical implants for joint and bone replacements, as they are biocompatible and lightweight compared to metals.

However, with about 50 polymers currently developed for use with the technology, versus thousands of polymers for injection moulding, ALM has some catching up to do. For a number of reasons, injection moulding remains the most popular process for manufacturing polymer parts. Nonetheless, interest is growing in the use of ALM for plastics processing, because of its much-lauded advantages over other manufacturing techniques.

ALM is particularly viable for manufacturers looking to build complex parts cost effectively. The flexibility of the technology enables users to build multiple components at the same time--as opposed to injection and other moulding processes, where production is restricted to one type or similar types of components, according to the tooling used. Furthermore, because ALM involves adding, rather than taking away, there is very little scrap material, meaning a reduction in waste. The process also eliminates the need for tooling, saving on both cost and manufacturing time and importantly for businesses--this means a shorter lead-time for customers.

But, for manufacturers creating large volumes of products that are of simple to medium complexity, injection and other standard moulding techniques remain the processes of choice. As with ALM, there is very little waste, as scrap can be reground and reused.

Nonetheless, the future of ALM as a viable technique for plastics processing is being taken seriously, within both industry and academia. A number of research and development projects are being conducted into optimising the process, and helping it to become faster, more cost effective and more reliable. The Centre for Additive Layer Manufacturing (CALM) at the University of Exeter is researching new high temperature, high performance polymers for ALM, looking at material structures and properties and how these can be developed, so they can be used appropriately with the technology. One of the aims of this research is to help ALM on its path to becoming a mainstream manufacturing technique, by resolving challenges including surface finish, cost and performance.

Another challenge that CALM is working to resolve is the lack of knowledge and understanding about the technology and its potential among sectors that could benefit from adopting ALM. CALM runs knowledge exchange workshops tailored to a range of sectors, which cover the advantages, challenges and limitations of the technology, as well as advising on how ALM can be integrated into businesses to create new services.

As more materials become available and greater uptake of the technology drives costs down, the ALM industry will no doubt continue to grow, and expand into new sectors, for new applications. But, for now, there needs to be a balance between the push for new materials and more reliable systems, and the uptake and growth in interest.

THE CENTRE FOR ADDITIVE LAYER MANUFACTURING (CALM)

Leading the way in the development of high temperature polymers, CALM is a centre for expertise in additive layer manufacturing. Internationally renowned for high quality research into high temperature polymeric laser sintering, the centre boasts one of only five EOSINT P800 commercial platforms in the world, which can build parts at temperatures up to 385[degrees]C. CALM is also the only team offering independent research into high temperature polymers.

Established in 2010, following significant investment from the EU, University of Exeter and Airbus Group Innovations, CALM has supported more than 200 companies and has created regional growth of 20 million [pounds sterling] through its additive layer manufacturing business support. The team is experienced in working in partnerships with companies, other universities and government agencies and offer consultancy on all aspects of ALM.

FURTHER INFORMATION:

CALM@EXETER.AC.UK

www.exeter.ac.uk

Footnote:

(i) Wohlers Report 2014, Wohlers Associates, http://wohlersassociates.com/2014report.htm (ii) Wohlers, (iii) Wohlers, (iv) Wohlers, (v) Wohlers
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Title Annotation:3D PRINTING AND ADDITIVE MANUFACTURING
Comment:The rise of additive layer manufacturing.(3D PRINTING AND ADDITIVE MANUFACTURING)
Author:Bradbury, James
Publication:British Plastics & Rubber
Date:Sep 1, 2014
Words:926
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