The Next Revolution: Hybrid Manufacturing

Every day there seems to be a new industry Buzzword. A term being thrown around with increasing frequency is “Hybrid Manufacturing.” It sounds futuristic and high-tech, but what is hybrid manufacturing really?

The hybrid manufacturing approach is fairly simple; use additive and subtractive manufacturing together, with the goal of creating a superior finished piece. For readers not familiar with industry jargon, read as:

3D Printing + Traditional Machining = Hybrid Manufacturing.

But why is it better to use both processes together?

Limitations of Additive Manufacturing

The reason it’s important to use additive and subtractive manufacturing was summed up nicely by Chris Joest, one of the earliest adopters of hybrid manufacturing and president of Imperial Machine & Tool Co.

“People have focused on additive manufacturing as this revolutionary technology. The thing is that additive can’t stand on its own. The important part is starting early in the design process knowing there are certain things that can only be done additively, and certain things that can only be done subtractively. When you design parts from the beginning with this in mind – that’s how you make parts that could never be made before.”

Joest distilled things even further.

“Because of how the technology functions, every printed part takes some level of post processing. If you need to post process anyway, why not design the part to capture additional benefits?”

The Hybrid Approach

Since all parts made by metal 3D printers need traditional machining before they’re fit for end use, savvy manufacturers are changing their design approach to leverage this fact.

It starts at the computer, ensuring the CAD model is optimized for printing andmachining. Then it’s over to the 3D printer – where parts with complex internal structures are constructed one layer at a time. From there it’s on to the machine shop, where surface finish and detailed external features can be handled with absolute precision. Joest smiled as he shared another insight he picked up during his hybrid manufacturing journey.

“In my generation holes were round and straight. It was simple, drill bits are round and straight – so are holes. But now there’s no need for that. Holes can be square, or kidney shaped, or curved, or change diameter…”

Making the Business Case

Hybrid manufacturing may sound great, but is there really a place for it in the rigid manufacturing world?

“What’s the business case? The revolutionary capabilities additive manufacturing affords! You can make things that are not possible unless constructed layer by layer. Things like internal passages for hydraulic fluid, or pneumatic channels for high pressure gasses– they can be built into a part. This capability is something that customers need, and they’re willing to pay for.”

Joest is one of an extremely small group of manufacturers in the entire world offering true hybrid manufacturing. Initially only clients on the cutting edge were interested in such advanced capabilities, but things are rapidly changing. As the public becomes more educated about 3D printing, the number of designers looking to utilize additive manufacturing (AM) is increasing just as quickly.

“In the last 3 years our additive business has expanded greatly. The first couple of years we expected to lose money – and did – while we focused on learning our SLM machine and the process inside and out. By the second year we had engaged with customers and end users to provide them with a deeper understanding of the technology. In the third year we had to buy another SLM machine to keep up with the work load. Some of our AM business is with existing customers who are tapping into our expanded capability, but the majority of our AM clients are new customers who need hybrid manufacturing expertise. They have incredible, innovative designs that could not have been created until this point in history. It’s challenging work, but extremely rewarding.”

As we move into the future, hybrid manufacturing will not be a nicety offered by advanced manufacturing companies. It will be a requirement for any manufacturer who wishes to remain competitive. Those who recognize this fact early on will be better off than those who resist the change. There are some who say old-school manufacturers won’t be able to make such a radical shift in approach; to them Joest offers this:

“Imperial was started by my grandfather in 1943. The reason we have survived and thrived over the last 73 years is because we have always tried to embrace innovation instead of fearing it – it’s even part of our logo and letterhead. He instilled that in the culture of our company, and our family. An old dog can learn new tricks, but only if they really want to.”

Design Renaissance

Hybrid manufacturing is already redefining the limits of what can be created. As industry adopts and embraces the hybrid manufacturing approach, a design shift will occur unlike any we’ve seen since the industrial revolution. Joest shared a final thought.

“The biggest misconception is that additive manufacturing is in itself an improvement over traditional methods. In reality, the improvement comes when it’s used in conjunction with traditional methods to allow true design freedom and the realization of groundbreaking opportunities. That’s hybrid manufacturing.”

Let the hybrid revolution begin.

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