Creating an item from thin air may once have seemed like science fiction, but for today’s manufacturers, it’s not only a possibility - it’s become a critical component of their workflow. Bringing parts, difficult-to-build items, and entire products to life on demand is now a reality thanks to additive manufacturing (AM): a process that uses software to translate a digital design into a real-world item.asdf
AM technology such as additive manufacturing software is being rapidly adopted among the automotive and transportation, aviation and aerospace, and medical industries, and is creating everything from prototypes to finished products. Due to this, the additive manufacturing market is poised for explosive growth, and is expected to reach a value of over $6 billion by 2022. Additive manufacturing has potential applications across other industries as well, and manufacturers have realized it can streamline production, build items quickly, and have better traceability throughout the entire manufacturing process. Ensuring additive manufacturing is fully integrated with existing manufacturing systems will remain a key task for manufacturers for the foreseeable future.
The U.S. Department of Energy covered additive manufacturing in their "Manufacturing In A Minute" YouTube series, showing 3D Printing in action.
Additive manufacturing describes the manufacturing process that uses technologies to create 3D objects by adding material through an automated process. It’s achieved by adding layers atop of layers by depositing material, hardening material, melting a powder, or binding a powder. Some may even consider the term a synonym for 3D printing.
This is unlike a traditional subtractive manufacturing process, where the material is removed, or part forming like forging. Subtractive manufacturing helps construct 3D objects by cutting away material from a solid block (most typically done with a CNC machine, or Computer Numerical Control, which is a shop-tool device that can read computer programming inputs).
|Additive Manufacturing||Subtractive Manufacturing|
|Useful for rapid prototype development||Useful for prototypes requiring living hinge components|
|Computers and 3D Printing to create products||Computers and robotics to assist standard machining processes|
|The finished process leaves a rough surface that needs sanding||More proficient at smooth finished surfaces|
|Handles intricate objects easily||Intricate shapes can be difficult|
|Best used for small items||Best used for large volumes of items|
|Primarily used in plastics||Primarily used in metals|
|A more slow process||A rather fast process|
|Overall inexpensive||More expensive overall|
Manufacturers have implemented AM technologies through seven different additive manufacturing processes: powder bed fusion, vat photopolymerization, binder jetting, material extrusion, directed energy deposition, material jetting, and sheet lamination. Each method is achieved through a different variation of 3D printing technology, which varies based on material state, sources of light or heat, print axes, feed systems, and post-production processing.
The power of additive manufacturing makes it possible to build parts or structures that are impossible to manufacture through traditional methods, enabling rapid prototyping and the creation of new or replacement products that were once considered impossible. “Companies are being very strategic in selecting which parts can be better produced through additive manufacturing,” says Ron Beltz of Bluestreak, an MES solution provider. “Using additive manufacturing lets companies create parts quicker and at a lower overall cost, giving them a huge competitive advantage.”
To maximize that advantage, it’s crucial for manufacturers to determine the right additive manufacturing software solution that fits into their production line. On an industrial level, this means integrating the capabilities of additive manufacturing software with an existing manufacturing execution system (MES) or quality management system (QMS) to print, machine, inspect, and fabricate parts quickly and with fewer non-conformances.
Because manufacturers must often adhere to specification requirements and guidelines when creating parts, it’s critical for the AM process to ensure specifications are adhered to and that the process itself is auditable and repeatable. As such, information and data must be managed in real time and integrated with other systems to give production managers and quality managers the resources they need to drive the continuous improvement process.
The software used for additive generally involves four steps, according to Eric Miller of PADT, a provider of 3D printing products and services:
Many additive manufacturing software solutions can carry out these capabilities, but it’s the integration with MES and QMS systems that can truly differentiate and control an AM workflow. MES and QMS systems can help reduce waste, track builds, and maximize production, thanks to the enhanced management of nonconforming scrap parts, advanced serialization functions for multiple parts with different serial numbers, and the flexibility to track real-time combining of parts to optimize the routing of work on the production floor. “Organizations are going to need their MES/QMS software providers to give them the capability and functional components they need to have better control, detailed audit trails and documentation, and the ability to ensure compliance,” Beltz says.
It’s also crucial for existing additive manufacturing applications to integrate with existing manufacturing operating environments. Fortunately, many MES or QMS tools make it possible to easily integrate additive manufacturing software throughout the tracking, monitoring, and documentation process. “Most software is used as is,” says Miller, emphasizing the power that AM applications carry without the need to fine-tune the software for every manufacturing environment. “The only customization that is often required is the integration into MES and QMS tools.” Because additive manufacturing facilities vary in how they handle build processes, part serial numbers, quality control characteristics, data field names, and other crucial process details, MES and QMS tools can help coordinate and accurately record all aspects of production.
Part of the future growth potential for additive manufacturing lies within MES/QMS integrations. “The actual preparation and build of an AM part is only part of the process,” Miller says. “Raw materials, scheduling, and post-processing need to be planned and scheduled.” Fully incorporating AM capabilities into an MES/QMS workflow means giving manufacturers the right solutions for real-time job tracking and shop floor quality management to ensure they have the tools to help their business grow.
But to maximize production efficiency, the MES/QMS software solutions of the future will need to address a number of shortcomings that additive manufacturing processing facilities often encounter. Beltz sees an opportunity for new MES/QMS functions to properly manage a unique build platform that can contain varying types of parts within the same work order, allow certain parts to continue the new operation step in the work order process, and manage the raw material usage going into the 3D printer. The MES/QMS must be flexible and configurable enough to handle different parts being produced through totally different requirements and operating steps, all within the same facility, Beltz notes.
Future additive manufacturing solutions must also be able to collect and retain information for industry-specific quality management systems, like the aerospace industry’s AS9100 and Nadcap standards.
Each industry standard requires the collection and retention of proper machine readings at the time of production, as well as the collection and storage of data and test results and it’s considered essential functionality. All of this needs to be updated system-wide in real time for better quality management, according to Beltz.
Today’s MES/QMS systems still offer real-time processing data, production visibility, and tight integration that additive manufacturing production facilities need. With the right MES/QMS, a production facility can improve its repeatability processing, reproducibility of QA/QC steps in the inspection process, and simplify root cause analysis when non-conformances occur. Making the AM process even more productive at a higher quality ensures that parts and products can be built faster and more accurately than ever before. Whether it’s through AM software integrated with an existing MES/QMS or a standalone solution, today’s manufacturers should be able to find an AM workflow that fits their rigorous needs.