One of the most exciting and promising aspects of additive manufacturing (AM) technologies is their potential to radically disrupt design principles for manufacturing. As 3D printing evolves and transitions from a strictly prototyping to the production process, many believe it will usher in a new paradigm for a design that is not tied to the design constraints associated with more traditional manufacturing processes.
If you think about it, it makes total sense. Today, most widely adopted manufacturing processes rely on subtractive methods, meaning they cut away or remove layers from a block of raw material. This approach, though precise and effective for many applications, comes with various design limitations in terms of hollow or complexly structured parts with certain angles and overhangs. Injection molding, though itself is not a subtractive technique, largely relies on subtractive methods to produce molds, meaning its designs are still limited to what subtractive processes, such as CNC machining, are capable of.
As an additive approach, 3D printing builds objects layer by layer, meaning that it is capable of constructing complex internal geometries and structures as long as they are supported. To address these new design opportunities, the concept of Design for Additive Manufacturing—better known as DfAM—was created. At its core, DfAM consists of a series of design methods that address the performance, manufacturability, and cost of parts for AM technologies. Though still in their infancy, DfAM tools are already creating unique possibilities in terms of optimized part design, lightweight structures, and material reduction.
What does DfAM bring to the table?
Looking at the specific benefits of DfAM, we can pinpoint three key areas where the AM-centered design tools could be most impactful: design freedom, part consolidation, and lightweight.
• Design Freedom
When we talk about 3D printing, design freedom is always at the top of the list for its benefits. And indeed, it is one of the most significant new things that technology brings to the table. At a basic level, DfAM has been around for a while, enabling makers and manufacturers to integrate various infill rates and structures to speed up the printing process and cut back on material.
The real benefits of DfAM, however, combine these two things and add optimized performance to the mix. The ability to design or generate parts with complex internal geometries, hollowed-out interiors and lattices are game-changing in the manufacturing industry. Externally as well, DfAM makes it possible to create parts or products with wholly new shapes, which would be impossible to produce using traditional manufacturing processes.
• Part Consolidation
Manufacturers in the aerospace and automotive industries—to name but a couple—are reaping the benefits of additive manufacturing when it comes to part consolidation. In short, the production capabilities of additive manufacturing coupled with DfAM enable producers to redesign part assemblies in innovative ways, combining multiple components into a single part.
Arguably one of the most famous examples of part consolidation comes from aerospace startup Relativity Space, which leveraged 3D printing and DfAM to consolidate a rocket engine assembly from roughly 100,000 parts to only 1,000. Thanks to 3D printing and part consolidation, Relativity’s rocket engine’s has become dramatically cheaper and faster to produce.
As a consequence of design freedom and part consolidation, manufacturers are finding new ways to achieve design goals, such as reducing the weight of parts. As DfAM software advances, part designs can even be generated based on performance requirements, meaning that components can benefit from the lightest possible weight without compromising strength or structural integrity.
The ability to design more lightweight parts—whether by integrating partially hollow internal geometries, like lattices, or consolidating multiple parts into one, or creating wholly new structures—is critical in creating more efficient machines. In vehicles or aircraft, for instance, weight reduction leads to better fuel efficiency. Reducing material weight can also lead to lower material costs, making for more cost-friendly production.
The State of DfAM today
Today, we are seeing an influx in DfAM software solutions, spanning generative design, topology optimizing and other smart design features. Software developers such as topology, Parameters, Autodesk, Altair, and others are coming up with innovative tools that enable manufacturers to not only streamline part design—increasing automation through generative design and simulation capabilities—but to exploit the true benefits of additive manufacturing at the design stage.
At this stage, manufacturers are only starting to leverage the benefits of AM and DfAM, as it is a new terrain in the industrial sector. Thankfully, there are many AM experts and professional services, such as RapidDirect, that can help to support companies in their journey of adopting additive manufacturing through the exploration of DfAM.
Today, we are seeing an increasing number of success stories that involve companies reengineering parts that were originally manufactured using traditional processes using DfAM and 3D printing. In the future, DfAM software and additive manufacturing will only continue to become more widely adopted.