Emerging Technologies: Advanced Digital Manufacturing

28 Feb

In today’s increasingly technological and global marketplace, higher education must proactively anticipate future market demands. Texas State Technical College’s Emerging Technologies provides timely insights, analysis and recommendations for college leaders to support informed curricular decisions. Each publication provides recommendations and supporting data regarding the development of new curriculum, revisions to existing curriculum and other wildcard considerations that may impact occupational demand and market projections.

Since 2006 TSTC Publishing has worked in partnership with TSTC Emerging Technologies to publish new emerging technology forecasts in addition to distributing forecasts published prior to 2006. In this post, Jacqueline Deavenport, Baylor journalism student and TSTC Publishing intern, provides an overview and update on advanced digital manufacturing, one of the topics examined in the 2005 publication Emerging Technology Programs.

Advanced digital manufacturing (ADM) is a process that reduces the design and production cycle of manufactured goods. In short, ADM makes mass-producing anything from plastic eye goggles to non-functional car part prototypes quick and cost effective.

ADM differs from traditional machining procedures, which is labor intensive and requires several different steps and cutting tools. ADM technology was first introduced in 1987. Technological breakthroughs since then have increased the machine’s production rate and its manufactured parts functionality. Jerry Franklin is the director of Manufacturing and Technical Services at Danville Community College in Danville, Va. The lab he uses helps develop new products for local industries.

ADM technology depends on two things: 3D CAD modeling and simulation software and a layered manufacturing machine, which produces parts in a succession of layers. ADM uses a range of materials that can be made into a variety of shapes, including intricate geometries and cavities. Many of the latest developments in this technology have increased the use of 3D CAD software and also increased the types of materials used in manufacturing.

In the past a major setback in the ADM industry was cost. In 2004, the estimated cost of 3D printing machines was between $40,000 and $70,000, plus $30,000 in maintenance costs. Franklin states that currently, 3D printing technology is affordable for educational institutions, including some high schools and more industries. However, he says despite the price reduction for ADM equipment, the price for functional manufacturing materials must decrease to be competitive with their counterpart in the machining world.

The key to advanced digital manufacturing is its ability to produce finished products quickly and out of a variety of materials. For example, some of the materials used in ADM production are nylon, polycarbonate, ABS, A6 tool steel, elastomer (a material similar to rubber), casting sand, titanium, aluminum, plaster and cornstarch. “There are more materials, and their strength has increased in the past few years. Now it is possible to make finished products in a truly rapid-manufacturing mode,” Franklin said.

In addition to using new materials and equipment affordability, advances in 3D modeling and simulation software have increased the capabilities of ADM. The program’s ease of use has improved since earlier versions. Advancements in software almost entirely eliminate the need for drawings Franklin said. Product reverse engineering can be accomplished nearly all electronically. “Programs can import the 3D data from scanners almost seamlessly and create a 3D drawing,” Franklin said.

Although having made much advancement over the years, the ADM industry still faces constraints. ADM technology lacks the ability for the use of more than one material, and it lacks close tolerance precision. ADM technology can’t make parts better than +/- .0004 of an inch. Compared to traditional manufacturing, ADM is still more expensive to be universally useful. Plus, it’s not as fast. Franklin commented as research and development continues, new methods, materials and equipment will help overcome these constraints. Also, he said acceptance, increased production volume and competition in the industry will make it more affordable.

Despite these setbacks the impact of ADM technology is apparent in everyday life. “I don’t know specific examples quantitatively, but you can just look at the cosmetics and personal care aisles at Wal-Mart and see the impact. There are new packaging designs almost weekly, as is true with almost any consumer product nowadays. This would not have been possible earlier,” Franklin said. As a result of ADM technology, new, quality products are on the market more quickly than with previous product development methods.

More information about the ADM technology forecast and other technology forecasts currently available may be found at TSTC Emerging Technologies.

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