Additive manufacturing fabricates parts by building them up layer-by-layer (as opposed to cutting material away or molding it). It shows great promise for applications as diverse as lightweight aerospace structures and custom biomedical implants. 3-D Printing is one of several approaches to additive manufacturing.
Metallic, plastic or ceramic materials are laid down one thin layer at a time and placed precisely as directed by a digital design file. The raw materials are often in the form of powders or wires that can be melted and shaped by a laser.
An example application for the medical industry would be an artificial jawbone. A 3-D computer model of a jawbone is created based on the patient's bone structure, and this model is sliced into many layers. The computer then feeds the information into the additive machine, which could generate the complex bone structure substitute out of metal.
Additive manufacturing shows promise for the defense, energy, aerospace, medical and commercial sectors. Its alternative approach to machining, forging, molding and casting makes it a good choice for rapidly making highly customized parts. The technology also shows promise for creating parts on site, such as at forward-stationed military bases. Because of its potential, many companies are using the technology to get themselves into a position to use it. The growing field of companies using the technology includes makers of machine parts and novelty items.
One expected long-term impact is in highly customized manufacturing, where the technique can be more cost-effective than traditional methods. Instead of the difficulty of customizing a mold, for example, a manufacturer could just start with a powder and build a component directly. If you can imagine it, you can make it.
From performing its own in-house additive manufacturing research to funding projects elsewhere, NIST is advancing additive manufacturing in a number of ways.
In NIST's Engineering Laboratory, the Measurement Science for Additive Manufacturing Program has four projects in metal-based additive manufacturing:
NIST awarded two large grants in 2014 to fund research projects aimed at improving measurement and standards for additive manufacturing: $5 million to the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute in Youngstown, Ohio, for a collaborative research effort involving 27 companies, universities and national laboratories, and $2.4 million to Northern Illinois University to develop tools for process control and qualifying parts made with additive manufacturing processes. NIST has also made several smaller cooperative agreements with various groups. These competitively awarded grants will support industry's high priority objective of ensuring that quality parts are produced and certified for use in products made by a variety of industries and their supply chains.