Novi, Mich. – At the forefront of OEMs and service bureaus in defining just what can be made by "growing" custom parts are Morris Technologies Inc. (MTI) and its sister company Rapid Quality Manufacturing (RQM), which operate 20 direct metal laser sintering (DMLS) systems from German producer EOS. The company's installed base exceeds 1000 high-end systems worldwide.
DMLS systems enable the designing-in of higher performance attributes previously unaffordable or even impossible to construct. A mold with cooling channels that snake around the bends and curves of a part is one practical example. What's more, all this can be done in a "lights out," automated operation. It's these new shapes and manufacturing economics are behind the company's success.
MTI was one of the first shops in the US to collaborate closely with major aerospace and medical producers to explore laser sintering. Now on its way to certifying laser-sintered metals in both fields, the company is making everything from lightweight components for military unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to cobalt-chrome hip replacement prototypes for patients of the future.
|A complex bone rasp: one possibility for manufacturing with laser sintering.|
Laser sintering is an additive process that melts materials layer-by-layer at high temperatures, until the final and often complex shape is achieved. Traditional machining, mold/cast or sheet forming technologies either cut away or pour and inject materials, and have well-defined limits that carry over to the geometries and performance characteristics of the products.
"EOS technology has transformed a significant part of our business already," says Greg Morris, CEO of MTI. "Laser sintering is opening up whole new categories of opportunities for MTI and RQM, and we've expanded our DMLS capacity to more readily meet customers' needs for rapid turnaround."
|A braided titanium high heel: another possibility with laser sintering technology.|
Other companies are creating exotic lattice-like systems in plastics for lighting homes and offices, designer shoes with heels of braided titanium (see photo) and, soon, cranial implants, knees and medical instruments designed around the exact geometry of the individual human body and the surgeon's hands. The wide-open design freedom of laser sintering systems for making single parts and meeting low-volume production needs creates the potential for serving not just doctors and engineers, but also start-up entrepreneurs. These entrepreneurs want to make clothing, games, and consumer goods, but don't own factories or have the resources for risky, high-volume product trials in untapped markets.
"The economic impact of additive manufacturing (AM) is significant, especially considering the opportunities in custom and short-run production," says Terry Wohlers, industry consultant and analyst. "If one could calculate the monetary impact from the thousands of companies that benefit from AM, it would be in the billions of dollars annually.
"The AM industry has grown in the double digits for 14 of its 23 years," notes Wohlers. "It continues to have tremendous untapped potential. A product development company may spend 5 to 10 percent on design and prototyping for a given program. The remaining 90 to 95 percent is spent on production, which is why so many companies are aggressively pursuing this segment of the market."