Additive manufacturing has the potential to transform manufacturing as demonstrated in the aerospace and automotive industries. The goal is clear – to bring additive manufacturing to the stage at which it can be used for mass production.

This is a goal which the industry hopes to achieve in the coming decades, but there are barriers which need to be overcome if this is to be possible.The current manufacturing process for mass production is cheaper, less time consuming but struggles to produce the same lightweight shapes and designs of equal or better mechanical performance.

Acknowledging that additive manufacturing is still in its relative infancy, we must find ways to refine the methods used so we can boost their effectiveness.

Until we do this, additive manufacturing of metal parts will struggle to become more than a bit part player in some industries.While it is used in R&D to design new parts for cars, the sheer volume of parts needed means that once designed the automotive industry reverts to normal machinery for mass production. A recent report from VW noted it expects additive manufacturing’s integration to remain limited until improvements are made to cost, production speed and the quality of components.Despite its promise, it needs to demonstrate better value and efficiency to become a mainstay.

So, we need to find ways to streamline the process.To do this we need to explore other elements of the supply chain, such as powder production and the heat treatment process, rather than just looking at how the additive manufacturing machine itself can be made more efficient.

Taking one of these examples, it takes additional effort to produce consistent high quality powder, which is the raw material used in additive manufacturing. At Air Products, providing the gases which are used to create the right inert atmosphere for the powder production process – improving the quality and performance of the product – is our primary link to additive manufacturing.

The modification of these gases provides just one example of how improvements can be made.In conjunction with the other industries, we are researching ways to optimise the powder production process, increasing efficiency and reducing cost and gas consumption.This collaboration with other links in the supply chain is essential – without the co-operation of the other firms involved we wouldn’t be able to carry out the R&D needed to do this.

Even in this specific element of the production of powder, just one factor in a much wider process, we can bring about greater efficiency and tighter process control.By examining other individual factors across the supply chain in similar detail we can help move the industry towards its overall goal of mass production.

This need for greater collaboration will also ring true as other manufacturers explore ways to make their specific part of the chain more economical.Finding the efficiencies necessary to make additive manufacturing suitable for mass production will require a joined-up approach from the whole supply chain and will be achieved through a series of incremental gains.