From dental and bone implants to restoration of engine parts, additive manufacturing changing lives and industries

Two weeks ago today, the sixth-annual Laser Additive Manufacturing Workshop opened in Houston with a riveting keynote by GE Aviation’s Todd Rockstroh. Setting an attendance record, LAM 2014 closed the following day with a lively Q&A session on the qualities and varieties of AM alloys for powder-bed and powder-fed applications.

lam logoIt’s always illuminating to go back to your notes a few days after an intensive conference and re-examine the “takeaways.” Several things stood out at LAM 2014: the increased presence of key industry players; the importance of data management to refine additive processes; the energetic efforts around the world to fund AM research and expand AM capabilities; and the work and personnel yet required to transform more exploratory concepts into established, repeatable — and commercially successful — parts and products.

Spinoff businesses by RPM & Associates of Rapid City, S.D., and France’s IREPA Laser technical center showed a couple of pathways to profitability. On Jan. 1, 2013, RPM created RPM Innovations, a laser-driven venture focusing about 70 percent of its efforts on upcoming aerospace applications. Meanwhile, IREPA, also working in aviation, built a five-axis, two-head cladding machine to repair engine parts; the success of its PowerCLAD process led to the creation of BeAM and the repair of more than 600 parts.

While patient-specific medical and dental implants continue to shine as examples of the design flexibility for which laser-based AM is renowned, hurdles remain in other manufacturing realms. For example, California-based Solid Concepts succeeded in “printing” a version of the famed 1911 model handgun in 36 hours, reducing post-processing time from 500 hours to 50 hours. Yet at a cost of $11,900 per weapon, the project served more to showcase the technology’s possibilities than produce a cost-effective product.

But it’s the kind of work that Solid Concepts and others are doing that pushes AM to its limits on the way to breaking new ground. AM’s promise is embodied in the pioneering, new-frontier spirit of not only the “maker” movement, with its personal 3D printers, but in far larger efforts that are shaping a new paradigm for major industries.

For example, South Africa’s Aerosud, whose Aeroswift project is aimed at producing titanium aviation parts measuring about 6.5 feet by 2 feet by 2 feet. On the other end of the size spectrum, Fraunhofer IWS has been additively producing wall thicknesses down to 30 micrometers. And Australia’s RMIT University, which opened a $25 million AM research precinct in 2011, has multiple goals: helping local businesses embrace new manufacturing technology; assisting an orthopedic surgeon who performs surgery on cancerous bones and provides implants; and working to repair aging U.S.-made aircraft and produce parts for a new joint-strike fighter plane.

LAM’s concentration of so much real-world content in a two-day event makes it invaluable not only to the laser industry but to the industries that increasingly look to lasers to effect new efficiencies that will save money in materials, weight, time and energy.

Stay tuned to Continuous Wave for our full report on LAM 2014, and click here to view selected presentations from the workshop.— Geoff Giordano