Although additive manufacturing has moved beyond the makerspaces where it first gained a foothold, many companies still relegate the technology for use in prototyping and little else.
Also known as 3-D printing, additive manufacturing most commonly uses layers of plastic resins to create parts and components. For many years, those parts have been used in rapid prototyping applications, but many companies think the technology lacks the durability for full-scale production.
Grand Rapids-based 3Dprintedparts.com hopes to change that perception by growing its capabilities for printing metal components, which are far better suited for production work, according to the company.
“We’re the only people printing metals in West Michigan,” General Manager Mike McLean told MiBiz. “It’s a speciality process and we’ve seen a lot of growth and interest in it. It’s not for prototyping, it’s production-scale 3-D printing. … We’re producing parts and metals that in a lot of ways surpass the capabilities of die-cast products.”
A division of Grand Rapids-based Scarlett Machinery Inc., the company has used its metal printing technology for low-volume components for a range of industries, including aerospace and medical device.
McLean said metal 3-D printing allows companies to create a nearly completed part, equivalent to or better than a die-cast part, without investing in the tooling. For example, 3Dprintedparts prints hydraulic manifolds for a local aerospace manufacturer, which then takes the components and machines them to the final dimensions.
“The benefit is that there is no tooling or lead time involved on it,” McLean said. “For the same cast component, you’d be spending three quarters of a million dollars for the tooling, where we can produce it without that tooling expense.”
While lead times for tooling can vary from eight to 24 weeks, 3Dprintedparts can complete a production run of components in a couple of weeks, said McLean, noting that the price per part tends to be higher than a traditional die-cast component.
“To produce one of these (metal printed parts), it might be $9,000 but if you don’t need 5,000 of the parts, you’re probably not going to invest in the tooling for it,” he said.
All told, the additive manufacturing industry has grown sharply in recent years. Revenues in the industry reached nearly $6.1 billion in 2016, a 17-percent increase compared to the previous year, according to a report by Wohlers Associates, a consulting firm based in Fort Collins, Colo.
The report notes the pace of growth slowed in 2016 compared to the previous year as sales decreased for two of the top additive manufacturing equipment producers. The additive manufacturing industry grew nearly 26 percent from 2014 to 2015.
INNOVATING SOFTWARE AND DESIGN
As additive manufacturing technology becomes more ubiquitous among manufacturers, companies will undoubtedly make faster printers capable of printing new materials. However, McLean believes the true innovation in 3-D printing will come from new developments in design software.
“Personally, I see the biggest improvement to production solid metal printing coming from the design capabilities of the engineers,” he said. “There is a huge vacuum of designers who are capable of incorporating best practices for metal printing. A lot of the software is actually prohibitive to the process. For the last two decades, all of the CAD programs have been designed around trying to streamline sheet metal or casting or machining processes.
“This is a newer technology and the software just isn’t able to keep up with the capability of the machines. I think on metal printing, the biggest impact will be software that’s coming out that will allow you to unlock the real potential.”
The company used that philosophy when it came to developing printed tooling for an injection-molded component for an undisclosed medical device manufacturer. 3Dprintedparts incorporated a lattice structure to cut down the cost of the part and incorporated new cooling channels. Those improvements cut cycle times from 35 seconds per part with standard tooling to 7.5 seconds, McLean said.
“With the right projects and the right design, you can really unlock a lot of benefits,” McLean said. “The value is in producing the net part, rather than in the machining.”
McLean expects additive manufacturing technology to be used more frequently in creating tooling, jigs and fixtures in the next five years.
While some companies move toward production-level 3-D printing, others have pushed the technology’s boundaries as a prototyping and specialty manufacturing tool.
Comstock Park-based Burton Precision LLC grew its internal additive manufacturing division rapidly in recent years as more companies and individuals come in with components to produce.
“Interest is growing by leaps and bounds,” said President Jim Krug. “We have a lot of different people coming into our place all the time with requests to print very strange things, whether it’s toys or parts from a broken lawn mower that they can’t find replacements for. We have a lot of fun doing that stuff.”
Recently, a local manufacturer approached Burton Precision with a broken gear from a 1950s era cutting machine. Since replacement parts were unavailable for it, the company brought it to Burton Precision to have a new one made.
Burton Precision scanned the part into CAD software, created a repaired sketch of the part and sent it to its 3-D printer. About 10 hours later, the printer finished the part, which was made from high-strength plastic and reinforced with carbon fiber.
While the part may wear faster than one made from metal, Burton Precision can easily print another one inexpensively and in less than a day.
Krug believes that sort of work will continue to drive business for his company, which will generate between $1 million and $2 million in sales this year. Approximately 40 percent of annual sales can be attributed to Burton Precision’s 3-D printing business. Comparatively, 3-D printing accounted for 20 percent of its business in 2016 and 5 percent of its business in 2015.
“It’s really growing quickly,” Krug said.