A New Way of Thinking: Mapping the Minefields of an Additive Manufacturing Process

Updated: Oct 14, 2020

By Bill Herman

President, New Era Assessments

Whenever I’m in front of a new client who is considering adopting an additive manufacturing (AM) process, one of the first things I try to do is prepare them for how we have to think about their goals and how we can utilize the inherent capabilities of AM.

There are three primary stages for an AM process: business planning; design planning and part building; and post-processing. Critical for all three stages is the ability to nurture collaboration across each distinct process. The AM process has its own nuances, blending technical with creative thinking, taking an approach that is decidedly not conventional. Establishing and monitoring collaboration throughout the process ensures all segments are in alignment.

Business planning

Landmine #1: Have the right people and resources for collaboration

Identifying resources and establishing the proper culture are crucial, many companies’ AM process fails here. Ultimately, every company wants a return on their investment (ROI). The additive materials and machine are 40-45 percent of an AM project’s cost, while the remaining 55-60 percent supports the process.

The ROI for AM, compared to conventional manufacturing, is a completely different roadmap. Securing funding for an AM project is easier in most cases than getting the right people on board. Whether it’s process or design engineers, you must determine: “Do I have what I need?” or “Do I need to train?” For many of my clients, bridging the training gap is where we first engage.

Landmine #2: Understand the keys for your ROI

Once you determine if you have the right people with the required training, analyzing ROI begins with a focus on both the pre-production and production processes. A project’s ROI can be enormous if you can reduce the engineering time up front.

For instance, an 8-inch-by-8-inch part may cost $50,000 to make, which might raise someone’s blood pressure, but what if it can be accomplished in three or four months as opposed to 12 to 16 months? That is where the impact of the AM model can really pay dividends.

The customizable manufacturing capabilities of AM are the antithesis of conventional manufacturing. Consider a family of parts from one inch to 10 inches in size; conventional thinking would require each part be engineered, tooled, forged, and produced. With AM, you can dedicate a little more time on front-end engineering and that cost equates to the ability to produce a range (or family) of similar parts and sizes that are customized and available on demand, as needed.

At the point where I get clients to visualize this type of scale for customizable manufacturing, the proverbial light bulb goes off, there’s a sudden, obvious insight, and off we go to the design planning and parts building stage.

Design planning and parts building

Landmine #3: Using a conventional approach for development of an AM process

The biggest challenge for the design stage of an AM process is to allow thinking and designing to happen organically. Using conventional planning, software or design techniques for AM will create failure. Unlike a conventional manufacturing process, design and process engineering must be in complete alignment for AM.

Today’s best AM parts builders understand collaboration between the engineers is critical to determine when and where key design elements such as structural appointments must appear. Attaining this level of collaboration optimizes AM’s core capabilities while promising maximum ROI.

Achieving this level of collaboration is not necessarily organic in a conventional process, nor is it essential, but for the AM process, it is the best way to ensure you are taking full advantage of all AM’s capabilities.


Landmine #4: Underestimating the importance of excess build material removal, material property, and dimensional stability

When parts emerge from the AM machine, they are not in a finished material state. The stress relieving process in AM is achieved through different types of heat treating or curing processes. It is essential for optimal parts performance that excess material and powder is effectively removed prior to the curing stage. Once cured, the stability of the part has been advanced to a more secure stage.

The machining process in AM is achieved differently than in conventional processes. Datum structures, the central points that an AM part is created from, are almost the reverse of conventional machining or the traditional casting processes.

Both the internal and external inspection of organic parts occurs during the final stages of production. This is a challenging aspect of the AM process that requires use of high-level vision systems, including lasers, white and blue lights, x-rays, computer typography, and CT scanners. The inspection process ensures every part is dimensionally correct.

While there are any number of landmines scattered across an AM process, when it comes to the initial business plan phase of the project, having a trusted resource expert involved can help mitigate potential impact on a project’s ROI.

About the Author:

Bill Herman is the President of Cincinnati-based New Era Assessments, LLC. In addition to a quality and test engineering background in traditional manufacturing, Bill has extensive experience in the additive manufacturing/3D printing industry, specializing in additive development and lean manufacturing for aerospace, medical, automotive and energy sectors. New Era Assessments, LLC is an additive manufacturing/3D printing assessment firm specializing in innovative, comprehensive additive manufacturing consulting—providing expert insights in design engineering, education, prototype parts development, production and parts development.