How is additive manufacturing improving computer technology?

Additive manufacturing – also known as 3D printing – continues to grow and the associated technologies are now maturing to the point that they can replace or supplement some traditional design and manufacturing processes. Many companies now use additive manufacturing to create components for systems as well as reduce cost and time when developing new products, and GRiD is no different, with several initiatives underway to leverage this exciting technology for rugged computing.

The world is moving into a new era known as the Fourth Industrial Revolution – dubbed Industry 4.0 – which will see companies harness smart, digital technologies to improve all aspects of their manufacturing and operations. Industry 4.0 is synonymous with disruptive technology that radically changes how manufacturing is carried out compared with previous industrial practices that may have been time-consuming, inefficient and expensive.

One of these disruptive technologies is additive manufacturing, which transforms how companies approach the design, manufacture and lifecycle support of products.

What is additive manufacturing?

Additive manufacturing (AM) takes software-based designs, such as Computer-Aided Design (CAD) drawings, and allows a company or individual to “print” physical three-dimensional objects, normally by adding materials layer-by-layer into the shape or object desired.

AM differs from traditional manufacturing methods such as CNC machining, which is a “subtractive” process where parts are made by removing material from a solid block, or casting and injection moulding in which a molten material, such as plastic or metal, is injected into a mould which then cools to form the shape required.

While machining and casting/injection moulding are manufacturing processes that will remain with us for some time owing to their reliability and maturity, they do have downsides that AM can address. This includes wastage that is the result of machining, as well as the expensive tooling required including CNC machines and customised items such as the moulds necessary for casting.

Companies are now rolling out more 3D printed components across various industries and products, with NASA even developing rocket engines with 3D printed parts that could take humans to Mars.


What are the pros and cons of additive manufacturing?

As we have seen above, AM does not require specialist tools (apart from the printer itself) or moulds to create three-dimensional parts and objects. That’s pivotal for companies that want to create one-off items in the early stages of product development such as prototypes. In early prototyping, the form factor and profile of items may still be changing, and being able to print a test item – without investing in moulds or CNC machines – allows a team to save a considerable amount of time and money before finalising a production item.

GRiD was an early adaptor of 3D printing for this exact purpose over ten years ago, as we were able to affordably “build” a prototype model of a product to ensure that integration was possible for a customer’s specific requirement. This was significantly less expensive than building a representative chassis out of aluminium and allowed GRiD the flexibility to adapt the design where necessary as well as effectively visualise the design to the end user.

AM is also maturing to the point that it is no longer just for prototype development but can be used on the end products themselves. There are now several examples of where GRiD has been able to roll out 3D-printed components for its products, including for bespoke requirements that address specific customer challenges. For applications including ruggedised computing, certain parts made from 3D printing have proven to be just as strong and reliable as legacy components.

For the lifecycle support of a product, custom parts produced using AM have been shown to extend the life of a product. GRiD, for example, has produced a custom 3D printed part that helps prevent user errors in device handling, which reduces the instances of accidental damage to a system and prolongs its life.

AM could also negate the need to store spare parts or rely on an external contractor; instead, all spare parts provision could be printed by the end-user or manufacturer when required, resulting in significant efficiencies and cost benefits.

Despite the clear benefits associated with AM, there are still some downsides, not least the issues that present themselves when producing at scale and en-masse. In the case of casting or injection moulding, this has clear benefits once the setup costs (tools and moulds) are covered, as the per-unit costs will decrease once production volume ramps up.

For AM, this is currently not the case, as the time and cost to produce an item – no matter the volume – remains relatively constant, and to produce more would require additional machines, which could negate the initial cost savings of 3D printing. There are also times when extremely tight tolerances are required for critical components in electronics, which 3D printing cannot yet match, and this will need further development.


What is the future of 3D printing?

While additive manufacturing may not completely replace existing manufacturing methods, it is certainly becoming an excellent addition to the options available to industry. The improvements seen in 3D printing over the last several years unequivocally support this approach, particularly as precision has improved and the parts produced become more reliable for rugged applications in austere environments.

This is why GRiD continues to explore the uses of additive manufacturing to support its design and production of ruggedised computers, as well as continuing to invest in 3D printer technology to streamline manufacturing and improve its solutions for customers. As part of our exciting expansion plans for 2024, more 3D printing capacity will be included, so watch out for more announcements on this to come later in the year.

GRiD is committed to staying at the forefront of advanced manufacturing techniques, such as 3D printing, which results in the very best rugged computing solutions. We are not standing still, and our aim is to set the pace and direction for our industry as a leading UK-based OEM for advanced rugged computers, with 3D printing opening up new avenues and creative possibilities for our company and defence more widely.

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