Author: Vivekanand Sista, PhD

Additive manufacturing (AM) already has many industrial uses, with more being discovered every year. Similar in principle to 3D printing, but distinct in execution, AM is the process of joining materials to make objects from 3D models, usually layer by layer, followed by a finishing process that prepares the new part for installation or use. While 3D printing excels at producing models and imitations, AM combines printing technologies, computer-assisted design (CAD), and post-production processing to create usable components.

The process begins by creating a 3D CAD model of the object and feeding the file into software where the object is sliced into individual layers. The software then instructs a manufacturing printer to create the object layer-by-layer through the addition of material. Complex designs – such as hollow shapes that traditionally would require welding or other assembly – are quickly built and require less material. In certain cases, designers can use AM to create shapes that were previously unattainable using conventional, subtractive manufacturing. Depending on the nature of the material and its application, the object may need post-processing, such as heat treatment or polishing. 

There is still lots of work to be done in the field of AM. Researchers and industry partners are broadening their knowledge base, working to improve the awareness and skills of companies and universities. Design processes are adapting to the possibilities of AM by moving away from reductive or subtractive processes. 

As AM makes more complex structures and parts possible, the challenges of finishing and post-processing increases. Despite these challenges, AM is already making an impact, most notably in the automotive industry. There, AM has helped parts manufacturers and car companies realize significant savings in the production of everything from machining components to taillight covers. As Bechtel’s familiarity with additive manufacturing increases, so too, will our potential use cases. 

Consider a piece of industrial pipe. In the engineering and construction industry, piping moves liquids and gases safely and efficiently throughout a facility, sometimes under elevated pressure. Wherever a pipe ends or connects to another piece of equipment, you often have a bolted connector or joint – called a flange. On its own, a single flange cover may simply be a piece of plastic. But on an industrial scale, they can represent a significant line-item in the budget – something AM may be able to help with. Flanges sometimes act as seals for pressurized equipment instead of welds - because flanges are more easily opened and resealed – but this feature leads to higher maintenance costs. To ensure an airtight seal, flanges need custom covers and plates made of industrial-grade plastic or metal that are critical to the integrity of the seal, and therefore the facility. During construction, projects have large quantities of these covers and plates on hand and spend considerable resources on their procurement, maintenance, and storage. For projects, this excess physical inventory is an unavoidable cost – whether the parts are eventually used or not. AM could help relieve some of these costs by providing on-call fabrication at the work front. 

Bechtel is working toward a future state of “digital inventory,” where AM machines and digital plans for parts would help alleviate the practice of buying mass quantities of components. AM machines and their digital inventory could eventually allow engineers to produce their components on-site with an AM machine and a digital blueprint. This approach could save significant amounts of labor and time – freeing up builders to focus on more critical tasks, identify more efficient construction methods, and translate a cheaper supply chain into savings for the project, customer, and community. 

Elsewhere in the construction industry, AM is already in use. Highly efficient 3D printers use fewer resources and fabricate complex components in record time. Whether it’s fabricating concrete structures or assembling carbon fiber form works, additive manufacturing with construction-grade materials is helping builders to increase efficiency, conserve materials, and improve safety conditions on-site. With the help of CAD software, engineers spend less time on manufacturing and assembly, and more time perfecting their design. Digital inventories help to alleviate logistical pressure and improve the efficiency of the supply chain. AM is not a magic solution to all the construction industry’s problems, but it is an innovative approach worth exploring further. Bechtel is committed to developing AM technology and its use cases with our industry partners as part of our commitment to achieving extraordinary results for our customers and their communities.