‘Thinking Ahead’ Maximizes Additive Manufacturing Potential

Successfully designing parts for additive manufacturing requires engineers to challenge design legacy.

A latticed version of a pedal intended to be produced via additive manufacturing versus its conventionally-manufactured counterpart. (EOS)

When it comes to designing automotive parts to be produced by additive manufacturing (AM), one must get comfortable asking tough questions, having difficult conversations and being able to admit when you don’t know the answer.

Additive-manufactured signal-marker inserts for the Mini Yours Customization program. (EOS)

Those conversations often involve challenging design legacy and the status quo, such as asking why a part has a specific finish. Is it functional? Cosmetic? Or is that just the way the part has always been created? It may seem like the answers won’t have much impact on actual CAD design, but they are incredibly important considerations for making the shift from designing components for traditional manufacturing to designing parts intended for AM.

Why additive manufacturing?

Additive manufacturing design conversations typically originate from one of two considerations. The first is a desire to replicate existing components using a 3D printer. The second is a wish to integrate eye-catching features – such as generative designs or lattice structures, which give parts a tech-forward appearance – into an existing component.

Additive-manufactured lugnut cover. (EOS)

Asking a seemingly innocuous question such as, “Why can’t I just put a lattice into this part?” is like asking why one can’t just fill a hole in the ground with water and call it a swimming pool. Without proper planning, construction and maintenance, you’re likely to create nothing more than a muddy mess.

Additive manufacturing should be viewed as another tool in the design toolbox – not a universal solution; AM shines in some areas, such as low-volume production (typically fewer than a half-million parts), but lags in others, such as materials availability. Understanding where the technology excels and where it has limitations can help to determine if AM is right for a specific project – although it might be easy to become distracted by what AM can’t do and overlook how it can help an organization.

For instance, material property gaps continue to be a pressing concern for AM – and it’s true that AM materials have slightly different properties than casting or molding. That shouldn’t be a deterrent, however: Because parts designed for additive manufacturing will look and perform differently than molded or cast parts, they shouldn’t be held to the same requirements. These design differences mean different materials are acceptable in additive manufacturing. In effect, being preoccupied by the fact the material data sheet for AM doesn’t match an existing, legacy manufacturing material can curb the ability to improve and innovate.

Starting the AM design journey

Before even thinking about designing a part for AM, consider the problem that’s being addressed. Simply ask, “Why do I want to manufacture this part using additive manufacturing?” Pain points around producing a specific part may be genuine – and valid. But sometimes, the part may not be the best candidate for AM for a variety of reasons, such as size constraints, materials availability, volume of production, or even post-processing requirements. These considerations don’t immediately disqualify parts from AM production, however. This is when design engineers need to start probing further and challenging design legacy.

Industrial 3D printers designed for plastics. (EOS)
A 3D-printed oil separator used by the Uni Stuttgart racing team. (EOS)

Perhaps the material currently used isn’t available for AM, but why was that material originally specified? What specific material properties are required – and can those properties be found in a similar material available for 3D printing? Or, if a material that meets your specifications doesn’t currently exist, can a custom material be engineered by a partner organization?

The answer to every one of these questions may not readily be known. But that’s acceptable. By simply asking these questions and challenging the status quo, one is learning to design for AM and learning to think additively.

Considerations for successful AM design

Whether seeking to redesign a part with a lattice structure or simply transition an existing part for AM, there are several common considerations engineers should keep top-of-mind during the design process.

  • Create a business case for AM It takes time, effort and resources to redesign a part for AM. An existing part already has CAD data and technical drawings and has gone through technical certifications. Redesigning that part for AM will require a new part number and updated specs. Is it worth the time and resources to go through that process again?
  • Create a business case to quantify the value AM will bring to the organization. For instance, perhaps the cost-benefits don’t align for reproducing a single part with AM but using AM would enable combining multiple pieces into one component. If it’s possible to eliminate assembly costs and materials waste from several disparate pieces from the equation, the cost-benefit analysis might tip in favor of AM.
  • Establish quantifiable goals Setting measurable goals from the onset will ease the long-term decision-making process as the entire team understands the goal and clearly articulate to all stakeholders how achieveables will be measured. If everyone understands the metrics of success and are included in the process, this will help avoid subsequent contentious situations and conversations.
  • Learn fast Leverage a “design sprint” mentality that encourages moving fast – but not carelessly. This will enable quick identification of what is feasible and continual learning that help eliminate unnecessary delays and inefficiencies in the design and product development process. Creating a learn-fast culture also will encourage innovation. The most effective teams are successful when they feel empowered to own the process and success is clearly defined.
  • Identify acceptable risk Like any other digital transformation, the adoption of AM requires some level of risk-taking. But there also needs to be a willingness within the organization to take that next step.

When in doubt, leverage the experience and expertise of an AM partner that has proven experience helping organizations implement and utilize AM. A knowledgeable partner will be able to identify, step-by-step, the value of AM, where and how it makes sense to deploy within your organization, and how to set clear, actionable goals against your AM journey.

Get a fish in the boat

No two companies will have the same AM journey. But it’s wise to celebrate the small victories. To use a fishing adage, sometimes just getting a fish in the boat can change the dynamic of the fishing experience – from dour and sullen to one brimming with excitement and self-recognized knowledge-gain after the first catch. Celebrating small victories in the additive journey can inject a fresh level of excitement and team buy-in for what’s possible and what’s to come.

David Krzeminski is a member of EOS’ Additive Minds Consulting team, which helps organizations understand the value AM can bring to their operations and identify where the process can have the greatest business impact. For more information, visit here .