11 Jan 2017
3D Printing Makes the Leap from Prototyping to Manufacturing
A new generation of 3D printers is said to vastly extend the application of this now more than familiar bit of high-tech kit, but are many of the buyers and exhibitors at Chicago's International Manufacturing Technology Show buying the hype?
Innovations in the 3D printing sector dominated proceedings at the recent International Manufacturing Technology Show (IMTS) in Chicago. Far from being fresh off the boat, though, 3D printing – or 'additive manufacturing' as it is more formally known – is now well established as an integral part of the research, development and prototyping process of many manufacturers.
While clearly a useful tool for pre-production modelling, a number of limitations have, until quite recently, seen 3D printing fail to make an impact in terms of manufacturing finished products. Most notably, the system has been hampered by low production speeds, poor finishes, the unsatisfactory mechanical performance of 3D printed parts and the limited number of printing materials available. Now, though, a new generation of bigger, faster 3D printers is likely to transcend these limitations and deliver stronger, better finished products.
One company at the forefront of this second coming of 3D printer technology is Minnesota-based Stratasys. Addressing the sector, Jim Vurpillat, the company's Marketing Program Director, said: "There's still a perception that additive manufacturing is all about prototyping. While that is still a big part of the business, it's been moving into manufacturing over the past four or five years, as well as into a number of other applications."
One of the key innovations that is currently transforming the sector was on show on Stratasys' own stand – an 'infinite build' demonstrator. Explaining the significance of the system, Vurpillat said: "What our infinite build demonstrator does is quite different from the traditional 3D printer. It takes the normal process of building on a vertical plane and turns it horizontal, allowing for an 'infinite' build."
Another company keen to highlight its own innovations in the sector was Carbon, a California-based 3D printer manufacturer. Flagging up its contribution, Phil DeSimone, the company's Vice-president for Business Development, said: "In the additive world, there has traditionally been a choice you have to make early on in the purchasing process. If you want something that has a good surface finish, you opt for stereolithography [SLA] and surface jet technologies. The problem is that they're not functional. They degrade and they're not stable.
"If you want something truly functional, you have to go with Fused Deposition Modelling [FDM] or Selective Laser Sintering [SLS]. The problem there, though, is that the output often doesn't look good. Items tend to have a poor surface finish and low levels of abrasion resistance."
Countering this, however, Carbon claims its proprietary new 3D printing system offers – for the first time – an impressive mechanical performance, good surface resistance and rapid output. DeSimone said: "We call our printing process CLIP – Continuous Liquid Interface Production. Instead of printing layer by layer, we print continuously. We can print all in one and actually go much faster.
"As a result, all of our parts look injection-moulded, lacking the layers that characterise traditional 3D printing output. All of our parts have unvarying mechanical properties. When you have different mechanical properties in different directions, it's really hard to validate and certify parts."
Perhaps the clearest indication of 3D printing's shift into the mainstream is the commitment now being shown to the sector by HP, the California-based technology giant, which had several additive printing machines at the event. Rationalising HP's belated arrival in the sector, Tim Heller, the company's 3D Printing Director for the Americas, said: "There's been a lot of expectation as to just when HP would be in this space. Well now we are, with our first 3D printer –the Jet Fusion 4200, a product aimed very much at the manufacturing sector.
"We're bringing to the 3D market a much more cost-effective and economical through-put machine. We believe it offers the kind of economies that will make the actual manufacturing of 3D printed objects viable."
Apart from increased speed and reduced costs, Heller believes that HP also offers certain other advantages when compared with the smaller niche 3D printing machine manufacturers. He said: "One of the things that HP brings to the party is experience in things like reliable design and the field support mechanism processes necessary to back all of that up. When you get into manufacturing that becomes very important.
"HP has long been in the business of supporting manufacturing with its page-wide web presses. As a result, we have world-class support mechanisms and properly resourced care programmes. We have also been able to take a lot of things from our previous business experience and build a best-in-class channel that will support this new product and help it scale geographically."
Although additive manufacturing is still primarily used for research and development modelling, a handful of sectors have started to apply the process to the production of finished components. Acknowledging this, DeSimone said: "The early adopters have been automotive and aerospace. It has also found applications in the medical field, particularly in dental, orthodontic and the manufacture of surgical tools. It is also being used in the consumer electronics space, especially with regard to the more customisable items."
Vurpillat was another to note the influence of aircraft and car makers on the 3D printer sector, saying: "We've partnered with Boeing on the infinite build demonstrator. As we've developed the technology, they've been looking at its potential applications, as has the Ford Motor Company."
While 3D printing took nearly all the plaudits for innovation at the event, most of the floorspace was occupied by more established manufacturing technologies. Even within these disciplines, however, machine makers are under increasing pressure to deliver ever more innovative solutions to their ever more demanding customer bases.
According to Theodore Neckel, Director of Corporate Marketing for Bern-based United Grinding, customer expectations are now shifting in many of these traditional sectors. He said: "We survey every single one of our customers and they've told us that they want more turnkey solutions and more of a rapid response to problems, so that is what we've looked to deliver.
"We've also established a new automation division, which has just produced its first collaborative robot. It's one of three such systems debuting at the event.
"Our system allows an operator to work at close quarters with the robot without the need for fencing or any other safety measures. The operator can physically touch the robot, move it wherever they need to or remove a part from it and, once they're done, it's automatically returned to its original position."
While the production of smarter, more efficient manufacturing machines was a common claim at the show, several exhibitors were also keen to champion the more classic values of ruggedness and strength. One such traditionalist was Mike Bollheimer, Sales Manager of the Metal Forming Systems division of Lincoln Electric Automation Solutions, an Ohio-based machinery manufacturer.
Stressing the strengths of his company's sturdy welding cell, he said: "We think this cell is more robust than anything else on the market. Our pricing is also low as we believe this is a product that will sell in large volumes."
With higher labour cost in the US compared with many overseas manufacturing centres, local factories face constant pressure to maximise their productiveness and efficiency. One way of boosting output, of course, is to increase the number of operations that can be performed by individual machines, an option that Illinois-based Knuth Machine Tools has looked to capitalise on.
Expanding on its approach, Steve Gutman, the company's Senior Regional Sales Manager, said: "One thing that has become really important is the facility to add multiple operations to one machine – hence lathe machines that can do machining and machining centres that can do turning operations.
"As you have live tooling on lathes once you're finished with the turning operation, there's no reason you can't perform the milling, drilling and tapping, completing the part in one set up. This also increases accuracy as it does away with the errors caused by re-chucking the product, while also reducing the time and cost required to complete that operation.
"Although we may have higher labour rates than some other places in the world, we're also the delivery point for a lot of products. This has made moving production to the US more cost effective. Overall, automation helps make that far more viable."
The International Manufacturing Technology Show 2016 was held at Chicago's McCormick Place exhibition complex from 12-17 September. The event featured 2,407 exhibitors and attracted more than 115,000 registered visitors.
James O'Donnell, Special Correspondent, Chicago