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Metal Printing: Friend or Foe?

Alfred Spada

What is the future of metalcasting?

This is a great question. This is a question that should allow you to put your heels up on your desk, lean back and just ponder for the entire afternoon.

Maybe your mind darts to robotics to eliminate labor. Maybe images of outer space or the planet Mars come to mind as the new frontiers for a greenfield facility. Or maybe your mind thinks of additive manufacturing and the ability to produce infinitely complex metal components without the use of tooling or maybe even a mold.

Having just returned from the AFS Metalcasting Congress in Columbus, Ohio, last month, I saw the industry’s opportunities with additive on display both on the exhibition floor and in the education sessions. Over the last several years, the conversations in metalcasting have shifted from “what is additive” to “how do I design this component for additive” as the industry has shifted from learning about the opportunities to capitalizing on them.

This brings us to the feature article, “Sparking Change? Advances in Direct Metal Printing,” on p. 24 that examines the segment of additive manufacturing referred to as direct metal printing. This is a process in which metal components are built layer by layer in additive manufacturing machines.

“Right now, it’s moving from a prototyping past to a production future,” said Tim Caffey, senior consultant for Wohlers Associates. “It’s in the process of growing up.”

When I first learned about the development of this process several years ago, my first reaction was fear.  If this competitor advances enough, it will put an end to the metalcasting industry. But then I took a step back and analyzed the stakeholders involved. Metalcasting has the opportunity to embrace this technology and make it another instrument in its toolbox.

Metalcasters are the experts at manufacturing complex metal components, so you should provide your customers a manufacturing portfolio that offers opportunities—with and without hard tooling, for prototypes and production, and with and without lead times. This doesn’t necessarily mean you purchase a machine for your operation; it could mean finding a partner that offers the service and ensuring you have a knowledge of what it can truly provide in terms of component properties and production rates.

“A lot of people have this misunderstanding of additive manufacturing, that it’s going to be a technology that will displace many of the traditional manufacturing processes,” said Andrew Snow, EOS of North America. “But it’s the exact opposite…We don’t see this as a threatening technology… It’s a complementary piece of equipment that’s another tool on the factory floor.”

In today’s marketplace, it is critical to be a solutions provider for your customer—that resource they turn to for any metal component information. While the future of metalcasting is to be determined, decisions are being made today by your customers and competitors to start to shape it.