Embracing freedom with AM starts with rethinking ‘design thinking’

More commonly known as 3D printing, additive manufacturing (AM) offers advantages that can never be attained with traditional production lines: limitless design freedom, customisation, lightness, material efficiency, etc. To unlock its full potential, designers need to adopt a completely new approach and mindset. A key aspect is using the right methodology.

AM vs. traditional manufacturing processes

AM comprises much more than just design and methodology. It is a complete process in which every building block has an essential role to play. Before getting started with the part-printing process, it’s important to work with a design that appropriately considers the requirements, the production technology and the material.

One of the major trends over the last few years is the transition from the use of additive manufacturing in prototyping towards the production of 3D-printed parts for end-use parts. Whereas 3D-printed prototypes are often copy-prints of the design, end-use AM parts need to be redesigned or re-engineered in function of the technology to offer a competitive alternative.

In traditional manufacturing, designers must always adapt their concepts to the constraints of the production process. In conventional manufacturing methods such as milling, the geometric freedom of the design is severely limited: it’s nigh impossible to create complex undercuts or make a shape hollow. As a result, parts are often inefficient and overdesigned.
The advent of additive manufacturing, however, has done away with numerous barriers and opened the door to more creativity. Here, materials are joined to produce models from 3D digital data, usually layer upon layer. As a result, the more material we use, the higher the cost will be. Even more, the ability to directly print parts with complex, non-traditional features effectively eliminates the need for custom tooling and avoids complex assemblies.

Embracing freedom

In theory, this means AM could be a win-win scenario. In practice, however, we see that the traditional design mindset is very persistent and prevents us from using AM to its full potential. The designer has to make the switch to embracing geometric freedom, complexity and changes.

A good example of this in practice is the definition of a hole or a channel vs. its function. For conventional technologies, it is almost mandatory to use a circular shape to define a hole or a channel, as it is manufactured using a drill. With additive manufacturing, the hole or channel can be created during the printing process. As a result, it’s possible to optimise the shape and geometry to enhance the printing process as well as the functionality of the part. If we use a drill to make a hole, it will be straight. To connect two holes, a 90-degree angle is required, negatively impacting the flow properties of the channel. Additive technologies enable the easy creation of complex 3D channels.

This new way of thinking also impacts our choice of tools for creating 3D concepts. Because complexity is often more difficult to incorporate, basic sketching tools won’t suffice to visualise or communicate a new idea, or create complex 3D models. Therefore, new software solutions such as generative design tools are often used. Generative design mimics nature’s evolutionary approach to design. Based on the inputs of design goals and parameters such as material, manufacturing constraints and specific load cases, the software will generate new design concepts that can be used as inspiration and as a basis for the final design. There is no single nor best generative design solution for a specific application: based on your inputs, you’re presented with tens of feasible options. Choose the design that best fits your requirements.

Methodology in six steps

Most product designers aren’t yet familiar with AM. Because this manufacturing technology requires a specific approach, a more specific design methodology has been developed. The goal? To fully exploit the possibilities of additive technologies while also taking other manufacturing constraints into account.

Our general AM design methodology consists of 6 different phases and is based on the ‘global design process’. Would you like to know more on this methodology? We explain it to you in our e-book 'Design for additive manufacturing: a feasible methology'.

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