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3D printers are creating construction and spare parts along with prototypes, making mechanical engineers rethink how they work.

The process is known by many names: selective laser melting, additive manufacturing, and 3D printing. These all refer to the computer-supported layering of materials to create three-dimensional products. This works just as well for plastics, resins and ceramics as well as biological materials and metal. Although "printed" aluminum, titanium and cobalt chrome are frequently less tensile and break more easily than conventionally molded metals, they are more finely granulated and therefore harder and lighter.

A further advantage is that 3D printing makes it possible to create shapes that have been very difficult to manufacture up to now – and therefore rarely justify the expense. This has led to an increase in designer pieces, individualized medical products as well as automotive and aerospace components in small lot sizes from the printers. Engineers are rethinking how they work – moving away from milling and forming and toward printing. Sometimes subcontractors are no longer needed: Airbus and General Electric have begun to make the fuel injectors for their latest generation of aircraft engines themselves. Siemens is also generating fuel injectors for special turbines with the own 3D printer.

There is great promise here for industrial manufacturers. "Rapid prototyping" has spread incredibly quickly in mechanical engineering. Additive manufacturing is considered the solution for reproducing rare or no longer available spare parts. 3D printing can make storing and transporting many parts unnecessary. A study by the Institute for Applied Ecology shows that the process also benefits the environment – a result stemming from material-saving designs and more efficient use of resources when manufacturing the products.

"Additive manufacturing is one of the key topics of the upcoming HANNOVER MESSE," says Senior Vice-President Marc Siemering. The Additive Manufacturing Plaza is dedicating a showcase to 3D printing at Digital Factory. Staged in exclusive cooperation with Arburg, the plaza will demonstrate integrated processes ranging from 3D models to formatting data for assembly and manufacture to post treatment of components. "At this special display, we are not only presenting our Freefomer and Arburg Plastic Freeforming technology, but also promising ways of using Industry 4.0 technology to deploy additive manufacturing and injection molding throughout the process chain," explains Heinz Gaub, CTO, Arburg.

In addition, the Additive Manufacturing Plaza will have a group pavilion and individual stands by key players. Among suppliers to appear alongside Arburg are alphacam, ExOne, Kisters and voxeljet. The clamping and gripping specialist Schunk will be showing "the world's first fully automated 3D design tool for additive manufactured gripper fingers" in Hannover. SCHUNK eGrip determines the best 3D contour, price and delivery time using very little data. This open-source web tool shortens the construction and order time for custom-made gripper fingers to 15 minutes. The top jaws, which are made of lightweight, wear resistant polyamide 12, can be manufactured in just a few days.

Digital Factory