When JSW Steel was building a captive power plant at Salem in 2018, the industrial steam turbine being set up needed oil sealing rings. While it is a small component, it was crucial for its operation. The company’s procurement team made inquiries, and was informed by its suppliers that they could manufacture the oil sealing rings in 4-6 months.
At this point, Siemens reached out to JSW Steel and offered to make the same component using 3D printing. The oil sealing rings were delivered within days.
3D Printing or additive manufacturing, a big component of industry 4.0, is the process of building three-dimensional solid objects from a digital design using additive methods.
The traditional methods of manufacturing, on the other hand, are based on subtractive manufacturing, which entails cutting out a piece of metal or polymer.
Market research company 6Wresearch has predicted the Indian 3D printer market will be worth USD 79 million by 2021.
The rise of additive manufacturing
Additive technology prints or assembles a three dimensional object layer by layer, where each layer is like a thinly sliced horizontal cross-section of the object being made.
An energy source like laser or electron beam is used with materials such as metal, polymer or resin in a regulated environment to convert a 3D design into an object, one micro layer at a time (Economic Times).
According to McKinsey, the overall economic impact created by additive manufacturing could be huge, especially with adoption across industries like aerospace and defence, automotive, healthcare and consumer goods.
GE Transportation is using 3D printing at its John F. Welch Technology Centre, Bangalore, to design parts for mining vehicles and locomotives. A couple of years ago, ISRO‘s GSAT-19 satellite carried a component called a feed cluster made by Wipro 3D.
HAL is using 3D printing to make engine components, though its applications are also found in its dedicated Helicopter MRO division, operational since 2006, which provides service and lifetime support to helicopters and other rotary wing products.
There is also a lot of interest in 3D printing in the education sector. It is being used by engineering students to design prototypes, in medical labs to study body organs, and by art students for artwork.
Desktop 3D printers such as MakerBot require no skill to operate and even primary school students can download printable files from the 3D community and print 3D objects.
Challenges in adoption of additive manufacturing
The arrival of desktop 3D printers created a lot of hype and it was said that everyone will have a 3D printer on their desk along with a paper printer. However, in reality, this technology is much slower and as of now, not as easy to operate.
To operate large format 3D printers, a better understanding of design for additive manufacturing, along with knowledge of polymers and computer numerical control operation background is required.
In addition, 3D imported machines are prohibitively expensive. For example, Wipro printing machines cost anywhere between Euro 600,000 to Euro 2 million.
To help overcome some of these challenges, Divide by Zero Technologies is working on a lease model for customers wherein they can just lease machines for as low as three months with monthly rentals starting from Rs 35,000 which includes material cost up to 5 kg per month. This will enable industrial users to lease machines as and when they need to scale up, without having to bear high costs.
Subtractive manufacturing is ideal for large production volumes, making it cost-effective.
In practice since the 1940s, it is primarily used in projects that require high complexity, reliable repetition, and optimal precision. The term ‘subtractive’ is used, since it involves subtracting materials in order to produce an end product.
The limitations of cutting and drilling technology restrict the creation of hollow parts from a single piece. That’s not all – some technology limitations lead to fewer details that can be created with a single tool. Despite these technical limitations, it does not mean the parts produced by subtractive manufacturing are not precise. Given enough time, the technique can create complex parts with precision using varied tooling methods.
Industry players are realising that 3D printing is the technology of the future and building capabilities in this technology is essential for the future of India.
In January, State-run defence company Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) and Wipro 3D, the metal additive manufacturing business of Wipro Infrastructure Engineering, signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) to design, develop, test, manufacture, as well as repair aerospace components using metal additive technology.
However more needs to be done. Impetus needs to come from large labs such as the DRDO or the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) for India’s precision 3D printing sector to grow.