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Additive Manufacturing Creates New Opportunities for Metalformers

By: Lou Kren

Monday, April 01, 2013
 

In his 2013 State of the Union address, President Obama touted the new National Additive Manufacturing Innovative Institute (NAMII), in Youngstown, OH. It’s the first of 15 such institutes planned in his $1 billion National Network for Manufacturing Innovation initiative. Central to the institute’s mission is the development of 3D printing and related forms of additive manufacturing, as viable part-production methods for manufacturers.

In the jigs and fixtures department at BMW AG, Regensberg, Germany, a Fortus 3D production system from Stratasys is used to manufacture assembly tools. This tool is used to affix the rear name badge.
Additive manufacturing, and especially 3D printing, have been buzzwords in new-technology circles for a couple of years. For metalformers, 3D printing can be likened to the next generation of rapid prototyping. But, instead of large and expensive machines run by specialty providers, all a metalformer needs is a desk, a 3D CAD file and just a few thousand bucks for simple setups to enter the additive-manufacturing business.

NAMII’s focus is the development of additive-manufacturing technology and processes so that laboratories, specialty shops and factories can translate digital images into parts that you can hold in your hand. Research drives the technology forward, making it more affordable and enabling creation of parts and products from polymers as well as metallic alloys.

What does the evolution of additive manufacturing mean to metalformers? It means the ability to create all manner of parts and products economically, for use on the shop floor and for custom or volume supply to customers.

The Technology and Business Cases for Additive Manufacturing

“When we talk about real end-use part manufacturing, we see it coming.”

Industrial Examples
of Additive Manufacturing

Metalformers can take advantage of additive manufacturing in many s, including prototyping, product development, part production and workholding assistance. We spoke with Stratasys, Eden Prairie, MN (www.stratasys.com), a developer and supplier of 3D printers and 3D production systems, to discuss how manufacturers are using the technology in surprising yet effective s.

Shown are polycarbonate hydroforming tools produced from the patented Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) additive-manufacturing process. The tools have proven lives of more than 600 cycles in forming aerospace-grade aluminum parts to 0.100 in. thick, according to Stratasys.
• Quality control: A manufacturer has saved hundreds of dollars on each fixture and hundreds of thousands of dollars annually in reducing time-to-market by transferring the manufacture of CMM fixtures from traditional machining to 3D printing. Quicker, more cost-effective fixture production cuts 61⁄2 days from the traditional machining process and 29 days off of the prior 30-day cycle to complete first-article inspections.

• 5S: One company uses 3D printing to assist in its 5S efforts to create neat and orderly workspaces. Hundreds of brightly colored tool holders populate the shop floor, with designing and 3D printing the pieces taking only 2 to 24 hr. Company officials calculate savings related to time as well as to inhouse production and increased productivity resulting from effective 5S implementation. The same company also employs 3D printing to produce workholding components.

• Product development: An electric-motor manufacturer had previously contracted with a number of service bureaus to produce 3D models of component designs. Each model iteration required one to two weeks of lead time. An average of three iterations meant delays of as long as six weeks for a completed 3D model, and the company required hundreds of models per year. Now, with inhouse 3D printing model production has dropped from weeks to hours. Beyond cost reductions, the quick turnaround time increases flexibility in making design changes.

• Custom-part production: A custom motorcycle manufacturer had used injection molding and aluminum machining to produce one-off custom parts for its bikes. Doing so required three to four weeks of lead time owing to the need for tooling. Then, when the company was required to fabricate these parts within five days, 3D printing got the call. The process created the parts—all meeting accuracy and strength requirements—in the allotted timeframe at a quarter of the cost for alternate processes.
So says Tim Shinbara, technical director of the Association for Manufacturing Technology (AMT) and executive committee member at NAMII (www.namii.org). He’s talking about the use of additive manufacturing—3D printing in particular—to actually produce parts. While 3D printing already makes parts from polymers, metallic parts are the exception rather than the rule right now. Barriers, he says, include the relatively high cost of machinery used to “print” metallic parts as compared to polymer printers, and speed issues that currently limit volume work.

Some hear about additive manufacturing and immediately relate to its rapid-prototyping roots, says Shinbara, seeing the technology as just about creating models, but not as a means of production.

“Additive manufacturing came out of the rapid-prototyping world,” Shinbara says, “so many people still apply the rapid-prototyping mindset to these newer technologies and processes. But that is just not the case. Some additive-manufacturing processes are too robust to be used only for rapid prototyping.”

At the other end of scale, some manufacturers envision 3D printing as a Star Trek replicator, where the press of a button instantly delivers a showroom-ready new car.

“People hear ‘additive’ and think it is a complete substitute for every single step and process required to produce a finished part,” says Shinbara. “It is not, and I don’t know if the technology will ever mature to that point. You have to ask if it is worth the investment to make finished parts—with all of the required tolerances, mechanical properties, densities and surface finishes—using only additive manufacturing in order to bypass all of the typical secondary processes. Doing that is costly, and I’m not sure it is necessary. Are you going to use additive to make 1 million aluminum clips today? No, why would you? The business case isn’t there and you aren’t really exploiting the technology as you could. Plenty of business cases exist where additive manufacturing as employed today won’t make sense. We aren’t trying to promote it as a cure-all. Additive manufacturing is complementary.”

Compatible with Secondary Processing

As process and system control parameters advance over time, the technology may one day deliver parts directly to the shipping box. Researchers are finding that additive manufacturing produces parts that lend themselves to typical secondary operations.

“Traditional secondary processing applies to additively manufactured parts,” Shinbara continues. “If you want to precipitation-harden such parts, for example, the same ASTM standards for other manufactured parts apply, and the secondary process yields positive results. Manufacturers should understand that traditional secondary operations that they already perform on their stamped parts can be performed on additive-manufactured metallic parts. With that understanding, additive manufacturing for part production starts to make sense.”

Manufacturer Finds Applications Well Beyond Prototyping

Progressive Dynamics Inc. (www.progressivedyn.com), Marshall, MI, has delved deeply into 3D-printing technology as part of its basic operating philosophy. The firm manufactures integrated power-management products and systems, including automatic transfer switching, AC/DC power distribution and digital status displays. Its interest in 3D printing started with rapid prototyping, and has escalated since.

Jeff Cornell, mechanical engineering manager and materials control director at Progressive Dynamics Inc., Marshall, MI, uses 3D printing to produce fixtures and other non-production pieces that find use throughout the manufacturer’s plant.
Progressive Dynamics employs 3D printing to support its main processes: metal stamping, plastic-injection molding, painting, wire fabrication, light assembly and printed-circuit-board assembly. Using Solidworks 3D modeling software, it can produce ABS plastic models in a few hours. The models serve as prototypes, test components and fixturing for stamping and molding, according to Jeff Cornell, mechanical engineering manager and materials control director.

“Many 3D printouts end up in workholding systems,” Cornell says. “For product development, we use 3D printing to produce samples and prototypes, or we test form, fit and function of parts that we design by printing out a part to see how it meshes with the rest of an assembly.”

Progressive Dynamics previously had outsourced prototyping, but about a decade ago, according to Cornell, as rapid-prototyping technology became more affordable the company purchased its own equipment. Today, the firm uses a 3D-printing machine with capacity to produce plastic models to about 10 by 10 by 12 in.

“We can design and print something off in a few hours, and we can test a component upfront right a,” Cornell says. “Even for parts larger than the capacity of the printer, we figured out how to make dovetail joints and break larger parts into sections.”

Though not using the 3D printer for any type of volume production, Progressive Dynamics has found innovative s to profit from the technology. For instance, the printer can run off simple washers as well as shims and spacers for various shop-floor applications in a matter of minutes.

The company fires up the printer perhaps a few times per month, Cornell says, but in some cases the machine will be used for a week straight during intense product-development sessions. Its use should only increase as Progressive Dynamics constantly explores new applications for 3D printing.
Beyond that, how can volume part production via additive manufacturing processes such as 3D printing make sense? The answer relates to tooling.

“You gain in affordability where you place multiple different parts in a single build—different and complex geometries without all of the tooling costs,” Shinbara says. “Then you can meet the required properties and net shapes by applying traditional secondary processes.”Shinbara goes on to identify part-volume “sweet spots” for additive manufacturing in the near future: low- and medium-volume parts of the same shape, and high volume where a part family exhibits geometry changes across the parts.

“With additive manufacturing, you can change geometries without added costs for tooling,” he says. “The only costs associated with design changes in additive manufacturing relate to the design engineer who must make the changes and prepare the digital files. So, the biggest benefit of additive manufacturing is the elimination of tooling that normally would be needed to produce parts of differing designs.

“From there, the manufacturer can consider the amount to amortize and the design changes necessary across the part family,” Shinbara continues. “Do you expect a lot of changes, or is it a mass customization order of 10,000 parts that might fit well in a traditional stamping process? What if a 10,000-part order requires a design change and a change in tooling for each 100 or 1000 parts? That adds up to a significant tooling cost, whereas with additive manufacturing, given a printer fill chamber with enough volume to produce that many parts, the part run is doable. In such cases, additive manufacturing allows for mass customization at an affordable cost—that is where the business case for this technology really shines. Manufacturers using traditional manufacturing methods, with education and familiarity, will start to realize such benefits.”

At that point, metalformers and other manufacturers can perform return-on-investment and amortization calculations while taking additive manufacturing into account. When an order arrives for a diverse part family, concern with tooling up for multiple jobs won’t necessarily take a metalformer out of the bid process. Beyond that, as the accompanying sidebars illustrate, additive manufacturing can provide solutions for a host of shop-floor challenges. MF

 

See also: Stratasys, Inc.

Related Enterprise Zones: Other Processes, Quality Control, Tool & Die

 


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