A while back we wrote about the fact that most additive manufacturing (AM) applications are not necessarily visible and some such as inner parts don’t receive that much attention. On top of that, when looking at the Gartner Hype Cycle, you can see that new AM applications get attention during their development phase and less so when they actually reach industrialization. Therefore this week we start a new series, #AMapplications. Each post will zoom in on an additively manufactured application that is in use today. The series will look into the specifics that make a certain application worthwhile to produce additively, the advantages and the challenges. First, in the new series are inductors.
What is an Inductor?
Inductors are used to store electrical energy and are one out of three important components in electronic equipment (along with resistors and capacitors). An inductor is basically a coiled wire from a conductive material – usually copper. Due to the shape and material, a current running through the wire creates an amplified magnetic field, much stronger than if the wire was straight. Inductors can be found in all scales of electronic equipment ranging from circuit boards (where the coil is a flat spiral shape) to manufacturing equipment.
Weighing Pros and Cons
Induction heating technology is common in manufacturing processes of metal industries such as automotive. In these production lines, the energy stored by the inductor is used to temper components, for example. Each inductor needs to be customized to fit the needs of the specific production line, and replacing it can result in extensive downtime. These two aspects – customization and time, make it a good fit for on-demand additive manufacturing. The shape of the inductor – a coil, a complex geometry, is also ideal for AM. At the same time, the inductor coils need to be made from a conductive material yet the same characteristic of conductivity that makes copper suitable for inductors is what makes copper harder to 3D print. The coil also has to be durable, withstand heat and time in industrial use. On top of that there is the issue of awareness, just last year GKN talked about the fact that end users haven’t realized yet that additively manufactured inductors are more efficient. They predicted that it will take a year or so before the industry understands the advantages.
Overcoming the Barriers
On one hand, we have the need for customization, speedy manufacturing time and complex geometry and on the other, a material that isn’t yet commonly used in additive manufacturing especially not in an industrial setting and low awareness to the benefits. A number of companies set to overcome these barriers and in 2017 GH Induction Group collaborated with Aidimme on the development of an EBM (Electron Beam Melting) method specifically for 3D printing copper coils (above early copper 3D printed coils on build plate). Simultaneously other companies were engaged in developing methods for additively manufacturing copper parts, one example is TRUMPF with its TruPrint 5000 which includes a green laser intended for 3D printing copper as well as precious metals (below copper parts 3D printed on the TruPrint 500).
Graduating from Use-Case to Use
The AM ecosystem moves fast, yet in the case of this specific application, it seems to have moved even faster. Less than a year after GKN’s predictions, two companies are currently offering online additive manufacturing coil solutions. One is GH Induction Group that now has a dedicated website for ordering customized additively manufactured copper coils and inductors (above). The other is PROTIQ Marketplace that worked with Trinckle on a web-based service allowing customers to configure and order customized AM copper inductors (up top and below). As an AM application the inductors do not only measure up to conventionally manufactured inductors they are an improved version. While in some instances traditional manufacturing methods are considered more repeatable, in coils actually AM offers more reproducibility, less human imprint in the shape making and the assembly. Beyond that, the additively manufactured coil is said to be much more durable. Inductors manufactured by conventional methods have a short life span due to the way they are constructed which includes welding seams that may warp and damage as the element is heated and cooled frequently while with AM the coil can be manufactured as one piece without assembly and welding.
AM Enabling a New Business Model
Developing a new business model using AM starts with identifying the right application, here the pros outweighed the cons, or more accurately once the main con was identified – the difficulty of 3D printing copper, it was overcome in a relatively short time span. Other barriers such as the readiness of companies to adopt AM parts was addressed by PROTIQ by creating an interface that simplifies the process. It starts with choosing a basic shape out of the 6 and then adjusting a number of variables. Instead of offering an entirely customized process that might be intimidating, they created a service that is based on variability. Dr. Ole Bröker, Head of Business Development at Trinckle said “We were able to close the gap in the digital business model of the PROTIQ Marketplace and realize a customer-specific design creation. A manual design process would have caused enormous costs and could have compromised the viability of the business model. Now that every customer can access an optimized inductor model intuitively, online and without effort, we see a fully digital and scalable process”.
It’s always exciting to see new applications for AM, but it’s even more exciting to see them mature into industrialized processes and business models. Tell us about the AM applications you encountered, we’ll try to feature them here and follow us for more #AMapplications. For more insights and information follow us on LinkedIn or subscribe to our newsletter for weekly updates.