Daniel Anderson/Director of Emerging Technologies/NN, Inc. Precision Engineered Products (PEP) Group
Additive manufacturing (AM) – also known as 3D printing – technologies can produce parts directly from CAD models, often reducing costs and lead times while making it possible to produce complex geometries that would be difficult or impossible to reproduce even with the most sophisticated CNC equipment. These technologies are changing how products are designed and manufactured.
Technologies like direct metal laser sintering (DMLS) that use high-powered lasers to essentially weld metal powder into parts offer appealing benefits to the medical device market.
We all know time is money in one way or another. With conventional metal-removal technologies, design for manufacturability (DFM) can chew up a lot of time with little ROI if the design changes. Using DMLS, parts can be created in a short time with considerable complexity, which is especially useful during concept development phases. Direct metal technologies allow the creation of metal parts that may not be machined practically and can produce a concept model quickly that may actually be used in a cadaver lab or other demanding environments to prove the merit of a design.
Furthermore, product development cycles often contain miscalculations that may put a person, activity or phase gate in jeopardy. DMLS has been used in many instances to quickly make parts to salvage a wide variety of situations.
With conventional metal-removal techniques, it generally takes a long time to make complex parts, as increased planning, tooling and operations are required. DMLS is basically indifferent to complexity; it can produce a complex part nearly as easily as a simple one.
More and more people are expanding their design parameters, knowing that DMLS can be used to make complex components, not only for concept development and prototyping, but into production as well. Single parts can be produced with DMLS that otherwise would have had to be comprised of multiple components.
DMLS results in cost savings on several fronts. It often removes all welding requirements from products, eliminates multiple ops and even reduces risk, while limiting material waste.
There are different advantages, disadvantages and considerations for different metal fabrication options, including DMLS. For example, a part machined from wrought may have more predictable mechanical properties, while a casting may be more applicable for certain part features or business goals. With DMLS, part geometry, strength requirements, grain structure, quantity and cost must be considered.
To be most successful, it’s critical to partner with an experienced group for DMLS applications, one that uses machines dedicated to their respective materials and has validated equipment and materials.
The progress that has been made with additive manufacturing technologies in material options, part consistency and properties is impressive. DMLS is not a silver bullet that will eliminate all other metal fabrication techniques, but it’s a valuable tool to have in the toolbox that has many applications and great continued potential in the medical industry.