Additive manufacturing: the fourth industrial revolution!






About ten years ago, it was predicted that forthcoming industrial revolutions would be continuously occurring on an unprecedented scale. Our sector of activity, construction, is also experiencing these unbridled technological evolutions. Without the general public really being aware of the revolutions that are underway in terms of building design and production, or the amazing capacity for intellectual and structural adaptation of the entire chain of professionals concerned.

3D Printers: are they really still just printers?

I wrote a Post in 2015 on the subject of 3D printers and their potential for development (post 18: “3D printers: breakthrough innovation for the construction industry”).

This sector is rapidly evolving. It has already reached series production level, with the production of corrective glasses made of composite material, and manufacture of small ceramic bricks.

Two trends are emerging: firstly, the size of the objects being manufactured is constantly increasing and secondly, new materials are being tested on a daily basis. So the traditional melted plastic thread is facing competition from concrete, aluminium, steel, cobalt-chrome, titanium, ceramic and composite wood. With particular attention given to recycled materials (recycled plastic granules, sawdust with binding agents, conversion of food waste, etc.)

The term “3D printer” is now replaced by “additive manufacturing”, which simply means that, under the control of a computer, the object is built by depositing layerupon layer of material, or by solidification. As opposed to subtractive manufacturing, where material is removed to create the desired form, where the mass is cut into and therefore loses material, this “additive manufacturing” makes it possible not just to produce components effectively but also to create small series of new components that are even more innovative, which previously could not be done (in the automotive and aerospace sectors for example). Strictly speaking, these additive manufacturing processes are not all actually “printing”, hence the semantic change. So what in fact is this?

Four additive manufacturing techniques

- Fuse Deposition Modelling (FDM): This is what is now called the “general public” printing technique using thermoplastic polymers

- Selective Laser Sintering (SLS): Selective sintering by laser using powder fused by energy from a high power laser, enabling plastic or nylon to be mixed with carbon or glass fibres to give greater rigidity. This technique is used for ceramic and certain metals.

- Stereolithography, which consists of controlled solidification of a liquid plastic material by laser.

- Selective Deposition Laminating, with laser cutting of successive layers that are subsequently stacked (paper, plastic or even metal bases).

In Dubai in 2016, offices were built using large plastic shells assembled on site (see link below). In the United States, concrete houses with a ground surface area of 225 m² were built in 24 hours!

Architects and designers at the heart of this 4th industrial revolution

Architects have understood that 3D printers can play a significant role in the production of their models, especially when the latter represent buildings with complex forms. This is the end of the road for models made with wood, glue and foamboard! More generally speaking, additive manufacturing will become an incomparable tool for computer assisted design and decision making in architecture firms. It will accelerate the conceptual research phase, while at the same time simplifying it.

And what about Mathias Bengtsson, the Danish designer who took it into his head to work with his 3D printer using software simulating organic growth and incorporating hundreds of parameters in terms of mass, energy, gravity and pressure loads? This process enabled him to produce a table with successive layers of titanium fused by an electron beam via the EBM technique (Electron Beam Melting) used in aeronautics.

In industrial circles, the term used is “increased” manufacturing

One might think that additive will mainly take off for production of parts and components to sell as they are, or integrated into mass distribution products. Industrials are talking about “alternative” manufacturing that diversifies and complements traditional series production. This is already the case in the aeronautics industry. Airbus is already using this technology to develop hundreds of components for its A350 programme. PSA Group is already producing some components (interior door handles at Peugeot).

But it would appear that in the short term, the main focus is on production via the method of adding tools, in particular templates and fixing used on production lines. Products that we don’t see but that are decisive for the reliability of these lines. This is what industrials refer to as “increased manufacturing”. It has been demonstrated that replacing wear parts that are often expensive (small series) and lengthy to obtain (artisanal manufacturing) can be revolutionised by 3D printers, which therefore drastically reduce costs.

If there is a real economic advantage to be had, it will work… and it’s already working!

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