3D printing is revolutionizing manufacturing. Also known as additive manufacturing (AM), 3D printing is unlike traditional machining techniques because it uses computerized or digital models to generate simple parts and complex components, and adds material only where it is needed. A growing number of high-tech organizations around the globe are pioneering AM technologies to use in their own applications, which range from product development to specialized manufacturing, in ways as diverse as architectural design, aerospace components, and medical implants. Already, NASA has sent two different 3D printers to the International Space Station specifically designed to operate in zero gravity.
The advantages of 3D printing are numerous; it allows for far greater design flexibility, decreased energy consumption, reduced waste, and shorter time to market. But it is not a silver bullet technology. Printed parts are subject to quality issues, thermal stresses, and distortions that can be difficult to diagnose.
By studying the printing process and its thermal properties with IR cameras, manufacturers have been able to make quick corrections with minimal production delays. IR cameras, whether traditional or high-speed, can assist in the discovery and diagnosis of potential problems, and can help manufacturers determine where changes must be implemented to maintain product uniformity and quality.
While most additive manufacturers today use metal- or polymer-deposition technology, researchers are experimenting with a variety of base materials, from carbon-fiber-reinforced thermoplastics to living cells. These materials have proven to be challenging, and researchers are utilizing IR cameras in an effort to improve AM processes and better understand their potential failure points.