Closing the gap between imagination and production

Manufacturing complex products faster and easier

‘In my view, additive manufacturing is a concept with two main fields of application,’ says Gibson, an internationally renowned expert in mechatronic design, robotics and additive manufacturing, who in 2017 received a ‘life time achievement award’, the Freeform and Additive Manufacturing (FAME) Award. ‘First, it can be a helpful tool in the process of designing and developing new products. This process can be quite lengthy, and it seems that nowadays the major time delays are in the early stages. Additive manufacturing helps speed things up, because it removes a lot of the need for understanding how to make things. If you're able to design with computers, then as soon as you think you've got something that fulfils the function of the product you want, you can pretty much build it straight away. This is very new. In the past, you usually needed the services of quite a number of other people to help you build your prototypes. Very few designers had the capability to also be a maker. Additive manufacturing joins those two tasks together, making design and development easier.’

Easier product development

‘In the past we used to teach and research into Design for Manufacture,’ Gibson continues. ‘The understanding behind that is that when you design something you must also consider how you’re going to make it. Usually, the outcome is a compromise of the designs. With additive manufacturing we’ve kind of eliminated the need for Design for Manufacture. For example, with 3D printers we can now quite easily and quickly make things that were inconceivable before. We can print with more than one material. So you can combine rigid and flexible materials in the same part. You can incorporate colour in your designs. In producing or reproducing parts, you can change the mechanical properties, so you can have areas that are stronger or weaker, lighter of more dense, more or less electrically conductive.’

Better performance

The second field of application for additive manufacturing stems from the complexity of modern products, Gibson explains. ‘We are constantly seeking better performance from the products that we’re creating. As a result, we now need to be thinking very carefully about the materials that we choose and how we combine them, adding sensors and actuators to make smart products. Additive manufacturing is basically a tool, alongside other existing tools, aimed at making that process easier and more convenient.’ Gibson says this applies especially to high-end, complex forms of additive manufacturing, in which high-performance materials and techniques, such as topology optimization, are used. ‘All of these things are helping us to get better performance from products in aerospace, high-performance vehicles and the like.’

Linking up with industry

Gibson notes that with all the exciting research and development going on in additive manufacturing and 3D printing, there is one missing link: the translation to industry. In his roles within the UT and the Fraunhofer Project Centre, he hopes to help establish that link by helping industry to incorporate some of his ideas about additive manufacturing in everyday practice. ‘The strength Fraunhofer Project Center at the University of Twente is that the industry provides us with real-world problems, and we try to come up with practical solutions – rather than just hypothesizing or generalizing the problems, which is quite common among researchers. Partnerships with industry are important, because the people that know the problems best are the ones that are experiencing them. Quite often they have an idea about a solution, but maybe they don’t have the full skillset or knowledge base to be able to actually solve their problem.’

prof.dr. I. Gibson (Ian)
Professor of Design Engineering, University of Twente, Scientific Director, Fraunhofer Project Center at the University of Twente. Fields of interest include: mechatronics, robotics and additive manufacturing.

‘My goal is to provide both industry and students with the knowledge they need to take advantage of all the new possibilities in additive manufacturing. It is my main purpose. We’re not looking at one particular branch of technology, but at how technologies are combined together. With 3D printers we now have tools that have not been exploited to their greatest potential. They are a solution looking for a problem. Students looking in the direction of our research should be creative thinkers, young minds, able to think outside the box. That’s what I hope to get from them. In turn, we will give them access to the actual problem space, where they get to apply their creativity to real-world problems.’