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Asia-Pacific: Manufacturing the Future

Photonics Spectra
Feb 2015

3-D laser printing is becoming a catalyst for industrial development — and the Asia-Pacific region is taking full advantage.

The world of laser-based 3-D printing is one of endless possibilities, so much so that trying to predict its advances seems pointless. Since its emergence in the 1980s, laser-based additive manufacturing has evolved into many forms, including stereolithography, selective laser sintering, direct metal laser sintering, laser solid forming and selective laser melting. During the technology’s humble beginnings, scientists used it to produce small handheld prototypes for an accurate representation of a part’s construction. Then, inevitably, they would have to machine the actual product by hand. If a metal part was being produced, manual process steps had to be taken, such as casting, welding, brazing and assembly. Direct manufacturing just wasn’t in the cards. Now, however, laser-based 3-D printers are cutting out the middlemen by making finished products. And while this revolutionary development is an international one, no other place has upped the ante quite as much as the Asia-Pacific zone. By producing large-scale end products with 3-D laser printing, the region has placed itself at the forefront of this young, revolutionary technology.

Direct metal laser sintering in action, fabricating multiple-unit bridges.
Direct metal laser sintering in action, fabricating multiple-unit bridges. Photo courtesy of Bego.


“This technology is evolving – and at a rapid pace,” said Mark Lee, a professor at Korea Maritime & Ocean University, and director of the university’s 3-D Printing Economic Research Center. “I use the word ‘evolve’ very deliberately, too, as it is mutating and changing at a rate that would make the flu virus seriously envious.” In July, the South Korean government announced a 10-year plan to promote the country’s 3-D printing industry, with the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy and the Ministry of Science, ICT (information/communication technology) and Future Planning heading the efforts.

“Korea, being a highly industrialized nation with an educated population comfortable with technology, and yet relatively small geographically, makes for a wonderful laboratory to see the actual changes, challenges and developments that 3-D printing will bring,” Lee said.

Information explosion

Much like the advent of the personal computer in 1976, new technologies of serious magnitude tend to take society by surprise. And like any worthwhile technology, its boundaries tend to disappear as further development and advancement take place. Laser-based 3-D printing is no different. Experts say it’s hard to fathom just how much it will change our world, simply because the potential is far too great.

“It is extremely important to remember that 3-D printing is not a stand-alone technology,” Lee said. “The Internet and 3-D printing are both driven by the PC. But when you combine all three together, you have a potential for social, economic and political change that is unprecedented. “Two years ago when I got into 3-D printing, I actually had to search for articles and information on the topic. Today it’s like drinking from a fire hose. I can’t keep up with the changes which are happening, literally, every day.”

One significant reason for the explosion in 3-D laser sintering is the expiration of key patents. On Oct. 17, 1986, University of Texas doctoral student Carl Deckard filed U.S. Patent No. 4,863,538, “Method and apparatus for producing parts by selective sintering.” While most U.S. patents expire after 20 years, there is an exception to the rule for patents issued before June 8, 1995. Deckard’s patent expired 17 years from the issue date of application, just about one year ago.

And with this disappearing blockade, it appears that an increase in production of selective laser sintering 3-D printers will be seen, closely followed by a reduction in price. If history serves as any model, the reduction will be significant. Although they are not laser-based, fused-deposition modeling printers offer one example. The price of fused-deposition modeling printers has decreased dramatically since their patent expired five years ago. MakerBot printers are currently $1375 – a far cry from the pre-patent expiration price of $25,000 for the same kind of printer.

The wing spar, set to be installed in a Comac C919 airplane in 2016.
The wing spar, set to be installed in a Comac C919 airplane in 2016. Photo courtesy of Melba Kurman.


Aerospace components

As such, the environment is ripe for bold moves and experimentation. For the Asia market, that translates largely into fabricating metal parts for the aerospace and tooling industries. Serious strides are being taken by scientists from Northwestern Polytechnical University’s State Key Laboratory of Solidification Processing in Xi’an, China. A 3-m titanium central wing spar was created with laser-based additive manufacturing for a Comac C919 passenger plane, and the part is expected to enter commercial service in 2016. According to a study by the University of California’s Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation, the piece weighed 91.5 percent less than the expected weight of 1607 kg that traditional forging would have created. Foreign suppliers were expected to provide the C919’s front windshield frame with a two-year manufacturing cycle, but researchers at the Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics, now Beihang University, created one in 50 days, and at one-tenth of the original $500,000 cost. Strong enough to meet the standard for aerospace use, the 3-D printed wing spar and windshield frame are feats. No welding is required, and the pieces meet the strength standards achieved by forging. With the requirements for commercial aircraft parts based on U.S. Federal Aviation Regulations, the rules are clear but stern, per Title 14, Chapter 1, Subchapter C, Subpart D, Section 29.603:

A 3-m titanium wing spar, 3-D printed by scientists at Northwestern Polytechnical University in China.
A 3-m titanium wing spar, 3-D printed by scientists at Northwestern Polytechnical University in China. Photo courtesy of Shi Yang/Guancha.


The suitability and durability of materials used for parts, the failure of which could adversely affect safety, must

(a) Be established on the basis of experience or tests;

(b) Meet approved specifications that ensure their having the strength and other properties assumed in the design data; and

(c) Take into account the effects of environmental conditions, such as temperature and humidity, expected in service.

Since 3-D laser printing can meet those standards with lightweight, highly controlled materials, the aerospace industry is taking notice. “In Asia, growth of additive manufacturing is skewed toward metals and is particularly driven by increasing demand for … technology in the aerospace and tooling industries,” said Stephanie Cheong, marketing manager for the additive manufacturing company EOS Asia-Pacific. “Moreover, the move of [additive manufacturing] toward production also generates more metal applications than in the past.” 3-D laser printing is also important for organizations involved in low-volume manufacturing, especially those who want to consolidate parts on existing designs. Companies are, of course, interested in reducing cost. And when one can create a design in a single part with a single part number and a one-step manufacturing process, efficiency is heightened.

Medical devices

The aerospace industry wants to cash in on lightweight end products for gas turbine components, liquid-fuel rocket engines, satellite componentry, and ducts and brackets for commercial and military aircraft. The medical industry, however, wants patient-specific products like prosthetics and orthotics, with custom molds, shapes and surfaces that only 3-D laser printing can provide. The technology removes the need for coatings, texturing or other processes required for implant manufacturing. According to Cheong, the next frontier in laser-sintered dental applications is set for the spring of 2015 and involves partial dentures that go beyond today’s custom copings and crowns.

Established company EOS is working with a startup company to make 3-D printed sole inserts for shoes using laser sintering. For other consumer products, the company is planning on meeting demand. “In the future, we’ll be answering the market demand for larger build chambers for increased production and – on the opposite scale – microlaser sintering for detailed small geometries,” Cheong said. Cambodia is also seeing enterprise business. ARC Hub PNH, Cambodia’s first 3-D printing startup, opened in November in the capital city of Phnom Penh to make 3-D printing accessible.

Other advances for larger companies like EOS include the investigation of multiple-scan-head technologies for both metal and plastic laser sintering. “We’re constantly evaluating improved scanners: self-calibrating, closed-loop feedback systems, ones with built-in optical sensing and other new capabilities,” she said. “Along the same lines, we’re exploring and qualifying different laser powers – up to 1000 W – to optimize build processing, speed and throughput for direct metal laser sintering.”

The company’s newest direct metal laser sintering system, the EOS M 400, is being introduced with a single-field, single-head 1000-W laser, to be followed by a four-laser version for rapid processing in a large build chamber. “We also have future plans for rolling out a commercially available model of the Precious M 080 for laser sintering gold, which is beginning to gain rapid acceptance in the jewelry market vertical,” Cheong said. The hardware isn’t the technology’s only development, either. Self-care programs are being offered for organizations to service their own products, with on-hand training and certification.

The EOS M 400.
The EOS M 400. Photo courtesy of EOS.


Additive design rules

That development addresses a common problem with such a young technology: a lack of seasoned, trained professionals. Even though the horizon of laser-based 3-D printing in Asia looks bright, hurdles are inevitable. The greatest challenges, Cheong maintains, are shifting organizational mind-sets from conventional to additive manufacturing, and teaching engineers how to design for additive manufacturing. “People think it’s a limitless technology,” she said, “but like all processes, it has its own design rules that must be taught and learned.”

In addition to personnel improvement, hardware is going to need some tweaking, as well. According to Dr. Henry Helvajian, SPIE fellow and senior scientist at the Aerospace Corp., laser sources are a good place to start. “It is true that laser sources specially designed for laser 3-D printing are now in the design stages,”

he said. “These lasers allow far better control of the beam shape, number of pulses and the repetition rate. Many of these lasers will be able to change these properties dynamically with input signals from sensors.”

As for other improvements, process, laser and quality control are of utmost importance.

“The big challenge now is that there are not sufficient process controls in these machines,” Helvajian said. “If there was a hiccup during a run, like the formation of a microhole, one does not find out about it until the part is finished. So you are faced with applying a patch repair scheme. If the problem could be identified during the process, it could have been corrected.” And many things can lead to problems during manufacture, such as the laser itself, the motion control stages or even quality of powder at the processing location.

These and other concerns will most likely be addressed in the coming months or years, whether through academic or government means. Japan has allocated 4 billion yen ($38.6 million) in funding for its national 3-D printing projects, including the research and development of printers and refined molding technology.

Asia has clear reasons to pursue additive manufacturing, as it impacts all of the area’s strategic emerging industries, including new materials, information technology, advanced equipment manufacturing and biophotonics. Government efforts are being made to bolster the additive manufacturing economy, while academics are spearheading experimental (and rewarding) 3-D printing processes. China in particular sees an opportunity to overcome gaps in advanced manufacturing capabilities to compete with other developed countries. As a whole, the Asia-Pacific region wants to be a key player in this relatively young field – and so far, it is succeeding.

“The current state of laser use in Asia is similar to the rest of the world,” Lee said. “It is such a new field that everyone is scrambling to experiment and explore new ideas.”


GLOSSARY
stereolithography
A method of creating real three-dimensional models by using lasers driven by CAD software. In contrast to the normal practice of removing material, this process polymerizes a liquid to quickly produce shapes that are untouched by human hands or cutting tools. Also known as three-dimensional imaging and three-dimensional modeling.  
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