3D printing has enjoyed a surge of interest in the past few years, and we should examine how it may be a game changer for forging production. As others have noted, while predicting technological trends, we tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run. While our collective predictive skills may not hit the bull's-eye, it is still worthwhile to analyze 3D-printing technology to learn how to better plan for its effects in the forging arena.
As you may be aware, most 3D printers for metal either extrude material in the cross section of a part and repeat the process in layers until a completed part is created, or they lay down a bed of fine material and melt (partially or fully) a cross section of the part in a similar manner. These methods have not changed greatly over the past decade or so.
Regardless of the method of metal part creation, it appears as though 3D printing currently fails to strike at the heart of the most valued material properties of forged metals, which are not only considerably stronger than their 3D-printed (milled-quality) counterparts, but can also be tempered, quenched and treated in other ways to increase the strength of forging. As such, it appears as though 3D printing may be relegated to simply “nibbling at the edges” of the forging market, replacing only those parts and processes where the required material properties of the part are less stringent.
However, we need to be aware of potential advancements in 3D-printing technology that simply enable production of a solid part and enhance the intrinsic strength of the metal. In other words, we need to be on the lookout for 3D-printing technologies that, during the printing process, approximate the forging, tempering and quenching processes that strengthen or treat the metal.
From an intellectual-property perspective, 3D printing is a game changer in other ways. 3D printers are progressively less expensive and increasingly available to the general public. Many libraries and universities now have 3D-printing devices to serve the “maker culture” that is rapidly growing in popularity.
This ease of availability of 3D-printing technology reduces or eliminates control of various aspects of parts supply. To acquire a forging years ago, one had to go through a particular supply chain that typically included professional engineering design and reliable production; forgings could not be accessed in other ways. However, that may now be changing.
For example, we can easily envision a curious designer measuring an existing forging and producing a copy of it on a 3D printer. Now the traditional supply chain for forging operations is disrupted because the designer has produced a batch of one part at relatively low cost and perhaps without the traditional design considerations of the original forged part.
The implications of this are numerous, including a forge shop’s lack of control of engineering standards, production standards and material quality. Moreover, our “batch of one” example may also infringe intellectual-property rights (such as patent rights) of the original producer.
As 3D-printing technology advances, we need to be mindful of these situations. It seems likely that the rapidly expanding availability of 3D-printing technology and materials will encroach and perhaps replace conventional design and manufacturing norms, while the amount of parts and the time needed to make them will eventually match conventional manufacturing in speed and cost.