As the amount of R&D pounds aimed at developing new Additive Manufacturing technologies and applications heads skywards so does the spend and the development time that is focused on the PLM design, analysis & simulation and digital manufacturing software to exploit it. (Market of $1.3B in 2014 expected to rise by over 315% in the next 2 years – Source Statista).

Additive Manufacturing

Moving away from the ‘quirky’ and academic only realms, 3D Printing or Additive Manufacturing (AM) as engineering professionals are now calling it, is on the cusp of becoming mainstream.

The plethora of components/assemblies and the variety of material types that can be produced, have sparked a great deal more than a passing interest from almost every industry. In fact I can’t think of one that hasn’t or isn’t planning to dip their toe.

From a tool that delivered a touchable part in a photo-hardening polymer, to an online procurement system where you bid to process AM aerospace grade components, the disruptive advantage of an AM produced product is growing.

We’ve stopped wowing at the fact that we can do it, to be amazed by the imaginative ways we can use the technology. Strange alien looking structures, lighter in weight, stronger and more practical are popping up everywhere.

To print or not to print

On one side you have AM manufacturers encouraging earlier and greater use of their products, to produce multiple prototypes and for low volume production. On the other, PLM OEM’s such as Dassault Systèmes, are continuing to invest in a future that minimises the use of costly prototypes by exposing new products to a lifelike virtual environment.

Turns out there are quite a lot of modeling and analyzing nuances that need to be taken into account to keep a virtual AM produced part real in a virtual environment. The fact that both sides of the phenomenon are working closely together means that we are assured of a robust commercial solution.

It’s not just a matter of better simulation and design tools, successive generations are becoming increasingly more comfortable and accepting of highly accurate visualizations without the need to handle, show and examine an actual component, assembly or product.

More than a marriage of convenience

As new processes emerge, PLM vendors will need to keep up to date with them and provide an economically sound alternative to just printing a prototype and trying it out. The true value of AM is not just the relative cost effectiveness and speed.

If finished product is to be printed it will need to be of an acceptable quality and this means that design & analysis applications will need to support new manufacturing processes, materials and material combinations which in turn will need to be developed and controlled by new manufacturing software.

With a now well established culture of using and trusting the 3D virtual environment the value Additive Manufacturing will provide is unlikely to come from printing to see and check early versions.

It’ll come from printing finished product. Merging ease of production with accuracy and dependability of design will be a major success factor but don’t underestimate the importance of finding new ways to produce products. This area of manufacturing will keep the software companies on their toes.