Four Steps to Boosting Additive Manufacturing in Canada

What is Additive Manufacturing (AM)?

AM is a part-creation process where material is built up over time in repetitive fashion typically by adding material in layers. It is considered fourth generation industrial revolution technology, a component of what is recently being called Industry 4.0 and in the consumer space is commonly called 3D Printing

AM processes use a wide variety of materials, including plastics, metals, ceramics, foods, and other organic materials. There are a variety of AM processes depending on materials used and desired results. These can be bucketed into a number of categories, such as,

  • VAT Photopolymerisation
  • Material Jetting
  • Binder Jetting
  • Material Extrusion
  • Powder Bed Fusion
  • Sheet Lamination
  • Directed Energy Deposition

These categories break down further into a wide variety of unique processes with various materials, each with its strengths and weaknesses. There is enough variety and specialization these days to warrant some analysis of the available options before creating parts with AM.  Machines that produce plastic parts span consumer, prosumer, commercial and industrial uses. Machines that produce metal and ceramic parts are currently industrial, because their cost is still well above consumer price range. 

Some AM processes may include a secondary subtraction process as part of complete part creation. For example, a metal AM process may be followed by a CNC process to remove excess material from near net shape parts to produce a final part. Some metal coating and cladding processes could easily fall under AM, such as hard face coatings, abrasion and corrosion resistance coatings, and wear and damage repairs.  These are sometimes left out of the AM category since they do not produce a complete part and only add material to a part created from another process, but several of the processes used cross-over with those in AM.

Also, there are primarily additive part creation processes which could be included under AM but are typically not, such as injection molding and die casting. The difference with these is that part creation depends on pre-produced tool dies, so the process is not solely dependent on a digital file and requires what is normally an expensive tool-creation step before part production can begin. The dies will themselves be made from a digital process, however more than likely this will be a subtractive process like CNC machining from a large block of tooling material. Important benefits of AM are the machine doesn’t require any special tooling to produce different parts, so the extra time and cost of producing the dies are avoided, the machine can often produce different parts in one run, and the machine can switch between production of different parts from run to run without changing any tooling or incurring any delay. 

Many AM processes require post processing steps once the parts are removed from the machine, such as thermal sintering or annealing, cleaning, or material removal with machining, grinding or polishing. One trend of the industry is to produce parts ever closer to finished product through machine automation, so less manual labour is involved, bringing costs down and improving speed and efficiency. 

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AM Status in Canada

Canada is active in AM research and development, especially centred in academic institutions and their industry partnerships, often supported by government funding. However industry experimentation, commercialization and use of the technology seems to be on a relatively slow upward swing in Canada, and significantly more investment and effort should be applied to take advantage of these game changing technologies. 

AM Focussed R&D Centres

  • Multi-Scale Additive Manufacturing Lab; University of Waterloo
  • Marine Additive Manufacturing Centre of Excellence; University of New Brunswick
  • Additive Design in Surgical Solutions (ADEISS) Centre; Western University, London, Ontario
  • AMGM Institute - Additive Manufacturing section; University Of British Columbia
  • Research Chair on Engineering of Processes, Materials, and Structures for Additive Manufacturing; Ecole de Technologie Superieure, Montreal
  • Smart Factory @ Centre for Aerospace Technology & Training (CATT); Red River College, Winnipeg
  • Additive Manufacturing Resource Centre (AMRC); Mohawk College, Hamilton
  • Centre for Advanced Manufacturing and Design Technologies (CAMDT); Sheridan College, Brampton
  • Cold Spray Additive Manufacturing (CSAM) Industrial R&D group; National Research Council (NRC)

Slow adoption in industry is to be expected to some degree because understanding, testing and verifying material and part properties takes considerable time once an AM material and process is available and suitable for a particular part in a particular industry. AM processes are very different than traditional molding, casting, forging, and machining. 

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These Four Steps Will Bolster AM Development in Canada

  1. Initiate a Canadian consortium supported lab, outfitted with a variety of AM equipment of various processes, for the testing and certification of materials for important priority use cases, such as automotive parts, aerospace, defense, medical, manufacturing, and more. The consortium should be a partnership of government, academia and industry, where industry partners consist of AM equipment providers, AM material providers, and users of AM processes.
     
  2. Work with other jurisdictions to assemble a common framework for certification that supports use in priority industries like aerospace, defense, automotive, and medical. As new AM processes, materials and equipment become available, introduce them into a rigorous testing and certification program, so industry can more readily adopt the technology. 
     
  3. Promote and support the development of more AM materials and alloys in Canada, both at the research level and beyond to the production level. We are lagging in this regard, and yet Canada has a wealth of the raw minerals and a great many plans to expand mining to extract them.

    Dr. Toyserkani, head of the Multi-Scale AM lab at the University of Waterloo, recently wrote in an Industry Today article,
    "Chief among [the challenges for AM to reach full potential] in our primary field of metals and metal alloys is a severe shortage of powders that have been validated for use with metal 3D printers, including laser, electron beam and binder-based AM processes. Take steel, for example. There are currently more than 1,000 steel alloys commercially available for conventional casting, but just seven that have been verified for AM production by original equipment manufacturers (OEMs). In the case of aluminum alloys, the ratio is about 600 to 12. Getting more AM metal powders on the market, one of our research thrusts in Waterloo, will take years of work. In the meantime, unfortunately, the shortage limits the number of part that can be made and companies that can benefit from the technology."
  4. Place more investment and effort into expanding our portfolio of intellectual property (IP) and developing our own AM technology innovations. Canada has little homegrown AM technology of our compared to other countries that are investing heavily in AM R&D, like the USA, Germany, Japan, the UK, the rest of Europe, and South Korea. There is significant opportunity for innovation in AM materials, processes and systems that offer these innovations in manufacturing friendly equipment. Scaling the processes and equipment to higher volume production while concurrently lowering the price of AM to better compete with traditional methods are critical to realizing the full benefits AM offers. The US company Desktop Metal, for example, is focused on offering higher volume and lower per part cost equipment to support mass production.
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Innovations In AM

Use of AM in industry is advancing rapidly and important results are being announced frequently, such as the almost entirely 3D printed Rutherford engine in the RocketLab Electron rocket which can be printed in about 24 hours at drastically reduced cost, and recent reports from GE using AM to reduce the part count of an advanced turboprop engine from 855 to 12

There is much opportunity to expand 3D printing processes at the micro scale, such as US based Microfabrica offer, in processes where parts are built up from the solid state bonding of powders or sheets without full melting, in composites, and in material jetting. Innovative examples of solid state 3D printing equipment under development are Spee3D and Titomic’s Kinetic Fusion process, both out of Australia. These processes are much faster than most other metal 3D printing processes, and speed means increased volume and scale, and reduced cost. Innovation in composites printing are coming from companies like MarkForged. Material jetting innovations are coming out of companies like Vader Systems and XJet

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Conclusion 

Canada has a significant manufacturing presence in aerospace and automotive manufacturing, as well as strategic interest in industries such as defence, rail, marine, mining and energy. All these industries will be impacted by the disruptions AM brings and we should get ahead of the curve by investing more heavily in AM materials, equipment and industrial use case development innovations.