The decision to add 3D printing machines — and renovate an existing facility to house them — requires wholesale operational, structural and engineering changes
3D printing, or additive manufacturing (AM) as it’s formally known, is the process of creating an object, part or component by layering a material, often metal or plastic, based on a computer-aided technical process.
This advanced manufacturing technique is the polar opposite of subtractive manufacturing (SM) techniques like drill-pressing or machining sheets and blocks of material into the desired shape and size.
As such, the advantages of AM over SM are profound: it can yield uniquely intricate and complex parts, delivers endless design flexibility and manufacturing complexity on the same device, wastes less material, and requires a significantly shorter lead time, to name a few.
Popular in industries such as aviation, aerospace, healthcare and industrial manufacturing, the decision to incorporate additive manufacturing can be compelling for some commercial organizations using SM equipment.
When organizations decide to add emerging technologies like AM or several others, they often plan to renovate existing manufacturing facilities to accommodate this new capability. However AM manufacturing equipment, with its unique set of requirements and hazards, cannot simply stand in for other machines. Renovations to incorporate this new equipment must address a variety of structural, operational and engineering concerns.
Because aluminum is often a material of choice for aviation and aerospace components, these industries gravitate to the use of powdered aluminum for the AM sintering process. As an A&E firm specializing in these industries, we’ve identified five requirements for renovations to accommodate AM, particularly if the technology requires the use of powdered metals like aluminum.
1. Consider the new operational concerns your AM technology raises.
First and foremost when renovating for AM, is to consider the hazards this new manufacturing process will introduce. Many AM facilities may use their raw material in a powdered form, in contrast to SM equipment which use that same material as a block, sheet or plate. This one fundamental difference drives countless facility considerations.
Some metallic powders used for AM, such as aluminum, are highly flammable, explosive, and incompatible with each other. Aluminum powder in particular can ignite when exposed to static electricity, water, or other oxidizing agents. This fact becomes particularly important if the company is considering acquiring pre-owned machinery, that may have been used with metallic powders or oxidizing agents that are incompatible with the new process.
Knowing the new risks of additive manufacturing, advising A&E partners must assess client needs and plans to engineer renovations that will protect both the structure and its occupants.
2. Isolate and identify all sources of moisture.
Aluminum powder, a raw material for AM, if exposed to water can develop flammable and highly explosive hydrogen gas. Therefore any possible interaction with water and moisture must be identified and prevented as part of the renovation.
The possible interactions are widespread and even surprising. For example, building codes typically mandate the use of automatic sprinkler systems in commercial manufacturing facilities. However in an AM facility with a fire situation, automatic sprinklers could present an explosion hazard. Knowledgeable A&E partners will work with and educate local building departments and officials, who may not be aware of this interaction and need for an alternate fire suppression technology.
Similarly, water-proofing of renovated facilities is another critical need for a process where even a drop of water, under the right conditions, could set off a reaction. In contrast, leaky roofs and ceilings in SM facilities might often have gone unrepaired. Even safety fixtures such as eye wash stations on the factory floor will have to be assessed and perhaps moved.
3. Fit buildings with specialized ventilation.
Although not all metallic dust is explosive, some grades of metallic dust can be explosive when airborne. Aluminum powder is particularly explosive if allowed to be dispersed in the air like dust where it could be mixed with other powdered metals or oxidizing agents. Therefore, renovated facilities must be designed with explosion-proof vents, to preserve the structure’s integrity in the event of an explosion.
4. Upgrade power capability and be sure it’s grounded.
Power upgrades may also be in order for facilities adding AM, since this equipment tends to consume more energy than SM machines like drill presses or machining lathes.
Static electricity in the facility is yet another risk factor, because it too can serve as a source of ignition for metallic powders. Therefore workbenches and other furnishings will need to be grounded to avoid static discharge.
5. Rethink raw materials and inventory storage.
Raw materials storage in AM facilities requires specific safety measures, considering the explosion hazards of certain metallic powders. Depending on the volumes of parts being produced, metallic powder may be delivered in 55-gallon drums. Proper storage of this potentially hazardous input becomes vital for organizations that have entered this fold.
The storage of finished parts, on the other hand, may be diminished in significance for AM facilities. The technology allows unique or one-of-a-kind components to be made to order and changed at will, but not necessarily ordered, shipped or inventoried as is the norm with SM techniques.
Make It a Reality
Because of these and many other criteria, an organization’s decision to employ AM is a far-reaching one that affects operations across the board. As an A&E firm with experience in this field, we understand the business implications of adding this technology, and how its use will impact the organization and local community. We can help organizations answer these and other questions, and master-plan the renovations required to create this new environment.