Hybrid manufacturing, a new additive manufacturing process that combines metal deposition with CNC (computer numerical control) machining on a single machine tool, exhibits potential to unlock design freedom and transform industries.
Here’s a prediction I feel comfortable making: the number of world-changing designs that actually make it to market is about to increase beyond anything we’ve seen before. Why? Because hybrid manufacturing technology is about to make impossible ideas possible – while also offering faster, less expensive, and more flexible manufacturing processes.
What is hybrid manufacturing?
To date, additive manufacturing processes have been limited to prototypes and small metal parts that are impossible to manufacture using conventional techniques. Hybrid manufacturing takes additive to the next level by combining it with metal machining processes on a single machine tool, unlocking new opportunities to make production-quality parts with the same additive-like flexibility.
One way to describe hybrid manufacturing is to picture combining a metal foundry with a CNC machine tool. The finished parts, made from high-performance metallic materials, are “grown” by a process called laser cladding, which uses a laser beam to fuse a metal powder feed into layers (think strong weld) on the surface of the workpiece. Once the metal has cooled, the workpiece can be machined using the traditional machining methods available directly on a machine. (Watch a video showing hybrid manufacturing.)
How can hybrid manufacturing help unleash innovation?
Until now, designers and innovators have been constrained by conventional manufacturing rules that dictated how products were made, and as a result placed many uninspiring controls on appearance and performance.
Hybrid technology removes those controls, offering the ability to more easily machine complicated and organically shaped parts, to make parts with interior details, to produce lighter-weight parts (but equally strong) made from lattice structures, to make parts that don’t need to be replaced, and even to make parts made up of multiple materials.
How might hybrid manufacturing transform my industry?
That answer is loaded with potential. Hybrid technology offers the ability to produce better performing and personalized products with lower maintenance and warranty costs, shorter lead times, less energy consumed during manufacturing and less material waste.
It also enables manufacturers to reduce inventory, make products on-demand, create smaller localized manufacturing environments, and even reduce supply chains down to single links. In a nutshell, it has the potential to make a massive change.
Imagine how much impact a 30-percent reduction in weight can have on a vehicle’s fuel efficiency – let alone on the manufacturer’s business, energy consumption, and the environment. While it is just a start, Airbus estimates that some 3D printed aircraft parts, such as this bracket, can weigh 30 to 55 percent less. Airbus also predicts that aircraft of the future will have a fuselage comprised of 3D printed parts.
Likewise, Elon Musk plans to revolutionize space access by enabling the rapid reusability of space craft by means of a space ship that lands like a helicopter to easily reload propellant. The Dragon V2 (watch the unveil video), Space X’s latest design, will be sent into space using the SuperDraco Thrusters, the first printed propulsion system and is able to produce 200 times more thrust than its predecessor.
How do you prepare to take advantage of hybrid manufacturing?
There aren’t many hybrid machines on the market today, but they are being produced. If your company is considering purchasing one, here are some ways to prepare yourself to be one of the early adopters.
First, become proficient at CAD/CAM and CAE software. The shape and geometry of hybrid parts can dramatically differ from conventional parts, so not only will you need to be able to model them, but also to analyze their strength and durability using CAE. Heat transfer will need to be considered during the deposition process and CAE technology can be used to predict and compensate for expansion and shrinkage.
Second, develop skills at programming and running multi-axis and multi-function CNC machine tools. Because of the complex geometry, multi-axis machine programming skills will be important. Also, a CAD/CAM system capable of defining and controlling metal deposition tool paths will be necessary.
Third, get access to a 3D printer and powder bed machines. Exposure to these machines will introduce you to the basic additive process and additive tool paths, as well as the more advanced laser deposition capabilities, including the metal powders and materials available.
Lastly, because you will perform as a foundry, become familiar with the processes necessary for certifying hybrid production parts. In addition to geometry inspection, this can include metallurgical properties as well as CT scanning and comparing the internal structures of the physical part to its design model.
While hybrid technology is a completely new and unchartered manufacturing technology, it exhibits the potential to change how products are made and the products themselves. The time to start thinking about how your company will use it is now!
What is your additive manufacturing strategy?