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The future of manufacturing is adding up
By Harold Eastman
A revolutionary shift is taking place in workshops and factories around the world. To understand what’s happening, imagine Michelangelo working on his famous sculpture, David. But instead of hammering on a rough block of stone, he’s working with a squeeze-tube of mysteriously liquid marble, building up the famous body in precise layers — soles of the feet first, then toes, ankles and on up.
“When a sculptor is chiseling a statue out of a block of stone,” explains Tony Thoma, Dean of Engineering Technology at Mohawk College, “that’s the equivalent of ‘subtractive’ manufacturing. You’re leaving a lot of dust and rock on the ground. But with ‘additive’ manufacturing, you’re building something up.”
Additive technology is causing a revolution in how we make things — and it’s the focus of applied research at Mohawk’s Additive Manufacturing Resource Centre (AMRC).
The 1,500-square-foot centre, opening January 16, 2015, is built around two remarkable machines that fabricate objects layer by layer. Computers in the devices begin by reducing three dimensional digital models of objects to “slices.” Then, slice by slice, thin layers of plastic or metal powder are spread on a plate in the appropriate shape. Lasers melt and harden each powder layer, fusing it with the one below. Because it works somewhat in the same way an inkjet printer works, the process is also called “3-D printing.”
The commercial-grade machines at AMRC can print components in a variety of materials, including titanium, stainless steel and plastic. The capacity to print metals in particular makes the centre a valuable real-world test-bed for manufacturers. “The machines,” says Thoma,”are similar to ones that General Electric has just purchased to make turbine blades for jet engines.”
Additive technology eliminates much of the costly waste of subtractive manufacturing —think of those marble chips in Michelangelo’s studio. But more importantly, the slice-by-slice approach can make it much simpler to build objects that would otherwise be tedious and expensive to make, if not impossible. As one of Thoma’s colleagues likes to say: “You can’t drill a curved hole, but you can print one.” With clever design, 3-D printers can even produce — in a single session — multi-part objects that would otherwise take 15 or 20 steps of casting, machining and assembly. Result: more cost-savings and potentially stronger and lighter parts.
The new centre will enable Mohawk to graduate designers and technicians who know how to work with the emerging technology. But the college also wants to expose manufacturers to the ways additive methods can improve quality while reducing costs. The College is partnering with medical researchers to develop sophisticated, one-off parts for robotic cancer biopsy machines, and to apply 3-D printing to the creation of advanced prosthetics.
For now, the biggest implications of additive technology are for manufacturers of complex, high-value components in fields like medicine and aviation. But as the new technology matures and becomes more affordable, Thoma foresees widening applications, just as digital printing on paper has steadily replaced more traditional methods.
He also thinks additive manufacturing will help Canada compete in a global market. “It’s going to help us keep the work we’ve got by lowering costs, and by creating new products that could never have been made before.”
This story was originally published in January 2015.