Design intent is not always easy to define, because getting a product out the door inevitably involves many compromises. Manufacturing options are limited. CAD visualization powers are limited. And, of course, the qualities of materials – heat tolerance, strength, flexibility – are always quite limited. What exists as a beautiful idea is sometimes lucky to see daylight as a decent design accommodation.
As product design technologies advance, however, capturing even ambitious design intent is becoming easier and more economically feasible. One such area of advance is in so-called “hybrid” manufacturing techniques and systems.
Hybrid manufacturing technologies seek to capture and combine the strengths of additive manufacturing (3D printing) with those of traditional CNC/subtractive machining, to create a single manufacturing workflow that effectively uses both at once.
Neither process alone is sufficient to solve every problem. 3D printing still has many limits in terms of usable materials and manufacturing precision in strict tolerance design situations. CNC machining, on the other hand, often faces significant challenges when unusually complicated or radical geometries are involved. In the gap left between the two, a large field of possible innovation exists: a wide scope of possible designs that combine complex geometries with high precision crafting.
Hybrid manufacturing systems seek to bridge that gap by finding ways to use 3D printing and CNC together on a single platform, in a single holistic design approach. This is a new way of looking at in-house manufacturing, to be sure. However, several major CNC vendors have already introduced bolt-on 3D print heads for their platforms; companies producing new 3D printer systems have likewise begun to incorporate features allowing limited subtractive machining in their processes.
The arrival of commonplace “hybrid” manufacturing is probably inevitable, as improvements both in CNC and in 3D printing create larger areas of capability overlap between the two. For companies interested in investing in hybrid platforms, however, one challenge remains: their CAD systems.
Many legacy CAD platforms today were initially created with only CNC machining in mind, and are now being updated and retrofitted for general compatibility with 3D printing paradigms. However, hybrid – efficiently using and exploiting the potential that exists between traditional CNC and new 3D printing manufacturing methods – means requiring 3D CAD power that does more than simply translate a design plan into a manufacturing workflow. Rather, the next generation of CAD will need to be far better at capturing design intent in the first place.
Creo is leading the way today in compatibility with leading edge manufacturing platforms, design visualization technologies, and streamlined UI methods for quickly but powerfully capturing design intent in its many forms. We are looking ahead to the hybrid manufacturing future – still in the distance, but clearly approaching. And likely to change everything we think we know about product design.