In the last five years, we have seen AM technologies move from being professional prototyping equipment to becoming almost consumer goods. Despite this remarkable progress, as well as the development of several successful applications in one-off, highly technical or customised products, AM technology has not yet been widely applied in the production of industrial products.
Moreover, according to project leader, Dr James Moultrie, Senior Lecturer in Design Management at the Institute for Manufacturing (IfM) at the University of Cambridge, the popular claim that 'everything can be made with AM' is misleading. In his view, even if the technology brings several advantages that are not possible with other manufacturing technologies - such as producing 'near-net' shapes components at low production volumes, eliminating tooling or design change costs, eliminating stock holding or minimum order sizes, reducing assembly effort by component integration and creating components that use significantly less material - the reality is that these advantages cannot be easily exploited without requiring a set of advanced skills and knowledge in 3D modelling and AM technology.
To address this challenge, Moultrie revealed that the new ESPRC-backed Design for Additive Manufacturing (D4AM) project will aim to develop a set of design rules to guide process selection and design optimisation for cost effective AM. In doing so, the project team aim to work from the perspective of the designer - and hopes to challenge the preconceptions that 'anything can be produced' using AM, whilst at the same time convincing sceptical designers that AM can be an economically viable manufacturing option when properly selected and applied.
"Thus, we hope to add AM into the designer's menu of manufacturing choices and provide sufficient design guidance to enable the appropriate process selection based on functional, technical and economic criteria," said Moultrie.
Two Stage Process
In order to explore the use of additive manufacturing technologies as mainstream production technologies, the project team plans to carry out a series of different research activities centred on two main stages. In the first stage, it will seek to collect and review the current knowledge on design for AM by analysing the relevant academic and non-academic published material and the technical capabilities of current AM machines. It will then investigate design practitioners' experience, knowledge and awareness of AM as a production technology. In the second stage, the team will move on to the development of the design principles themselves.
"This will be achieved by synthesising the results of the previous stage and testing them in a series of experiments to evaluate their applicability to different processes and machines. Finally, we will also explore approaches to effectively communicate those principles to professional designers and industry," said one of the D4AM projects co-investigators, Dr Richard Bibb, Reader in Medical Applications of Design at Loughborough University.
Bibb also pointed out that a number of other research projects and initiatives around the country are currently focusing on the technological development of AM - with examples including the EPSRC Centre for Innovative Manufacturing in Additive Manufacturing, the University of Nottingham-led Centre for Doctoral Training in Additive Manufacturing and 3D Printing and the EPSRC Bit-by-Bit project - and he hopes that the D4AM project will contribute to this ongoing effort and the future developments of AM technology by 'adding the perspective and the needs of the designers.'
In terms of the anticipated long term impact of the research, D4AM project member Dr Zicheng Zhu, Research Associate in Design for Additive Manufacturing at the University of Cambridge, considers the D4AM project as a pilot that 'will lay down the basis for future investigations.' Future studies will extend the outcomes by exploring the latest developments in AM technologies, multiple materials, metals, composites structures and eventually other emerging digital production technologies. The project will also inform the ongoing PhD projects at the Design for Digital Fabrication research group at Loughborough University and the Design Management Group at the University of Cambridge.
The expectation is that industrial partners, as well as academia, will benefit from the research carried out as part of the project - and that the new design principles will provide a tool for process selection and optimisation, which will in turn 'facilitate the implementation of AM advantages in design and production processes.' Dr Zhu said that presentations at 'prominent companies and events in the UK and internationally' will also be an integral part of the project and will continue 'well behind the funding period.'
The results of the study will also inform the existing taught courses at Loughborough University's Design School and Wolfson School of Mechanical & Manufacturing Engineering, as well as the Manufacturing Engineering Tripos at the University of Cambridge.
"In addition, appropriate teaching resources will be developed and made available to education and industry partners, including online copyright free resources composed of documents, videos and CAD files," added Dr Zhu.
4AM Team. From right to left Dr James Moultrie, Dr Richard Bibb, Dr Patrick Pradel and Dr Zicheng ZHU
Challenges facing AM users
Although he is very confident about the long term usefulness of the project outputs, D4AM project member Dr Patrick Pradel, Research Associate at the Loughborough University Design School, admitted that developers are still likely to face a range of challenges in using AM methods.
"There is currently is a lot of excitement surrounding AM - and there is little doubt that these new manufacturing technologies provide opportunities to make things that would be impossible with conventional production methods. However, even for experienced designers, those opportunities do not always match their experiences," said Pradel.
In his view, there is also still a 'genuine mismatch between what is believed and what is achievable' and, for designers to take full advantage of AM, he believes they need the ability to 'discard some hard-learnt design rules and appropriate a new set of rules targeted explicitly towards AM.'
"There has been some work exploring the design implications of AM when applied to artisan, craft, fashion goods or very low volume production - frequently non-functional home ware such as lampshades. The majority of research is from the perspective of manufacturing technologies in the laboratory. In reality, AM remains critically under-used as a mainstream manufacturing process," he added.
Looking ahead, Pradel highlighted the fact that, as an integral part of the research, the D4AM team is also looking at different communication approaches that can be used to effectively convey the design principles developed as part of the project to professional designers and design engineers. For instance, he said that the findings of the research 'could inform the development of new tools and functions in CAD software that can assist with the application of design rules.'
In terms of potential markets and applications, Moultrie also revealed that the project team is targeting the 'wider field of industrial, product and engineering design as applied to complex, multi-component domestic, professional, industrial and scientific products.'
Andrew Williams is a freelance journalist