Posts Tagged ‘3D printing’

When you think about United Parcel Service (if you ever do), you like think about the big brown truck that brings boxes to your house. But UPS does much more than deliver e-commerce purchases to residential addresses. They also have a significant business handling supply chain logistics. That business is potentially threatened by the evolving technology of additive manufacturing. Who needs a logistic purveyor when parts and components can be reduced to a file, sent around the world, and then printed at its point of use?

That concern has led UPS to experiment with 3D printing, investing in a start up and setting up a facility at UPS’s hub in Louisville. They currently have 100 printers and are planing to to expand to 900 (UPS Tests a 3-D Printing Service, Wall Street Journal, Sep 18). Just what are they doing with these printers?

UPS expects more companies will migrate some production to 3-D printing from traditional manufacturing on an aggressive growth curve, according to Rimas Kapeskas, head of UPS’s strategic enterprise fund. And UPS is also talking with customers about taking on a bigger role as a light manufacturer using 3-D printers. …

Late last month, the operation received an order for 40 mounting brackets for paper towel dispensers from a division of Georgia-Pacific LLC that makes dispensers, Dixie cups and cutlery. CloudDDM printed the mounts and UPS shipped them to a Georgia-Pacific engineer by the next morning. The brackets were slated for a month-long “stress test,” said Michael Dunn, senior vice president of innovation development for Georgia-Pacific.

Whirlpool turned to the operation recently when its own 3-D printers were all occupied. The maker of Maytag and KitchenAid products uses the printing method for prototypes of items like trays for refrigerators and venting systems for dryers, as a way to test parts on smaller scale.

The article also reports that UPS has used the service itself to produce parts for its fleet of planes. (more…)

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The potential of additive manufacturing has been a recurring theme on this blog. There is no denying that 3D printing is an intriguing technology that holds a lot of promise. To date, however, most of its applications have been in low volume settings such as making prototype parts or custom fitting items for medical applications. How do costs fit into that decision? I have yet to see a clear explanation of just how the variable costs of 3D printing stack up. Now the Economist provides at least a partial answer (3D printing scales up, Sep 7).

Additive manufacturing has other limitations. It can be slow—taking several hours to print, say, a body panel for a car. But speed is relative. What may be too slow for a large production run might be fine for a one-off item which would take weeks to make in a machine-shop.

Material costs are also high. Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene, better known as ABS, is the most common 3D-printing material. A mass manufacturer using plastic injection moulding might buy ABS in bulk for about $2 a kilo, but as a bespoke powder or filament for 3D printing it can cost as much as $80 a kilo, says Anthony Vicari of Lux Research, a Boston company that tracks emerging technologies.

In part the price difference is due to higher standards of purity and composition required for 3D printing. But mostly it is because 3D-printer manufacturers require users to buy materials from them and mark up the price, as with the inks for 2D inkjet printers. Mr Vicari thinks this strategy is not sustainable long term as third-party suppliers enter the business. Moreover, some big manufacturers, like GE, are developing bespoke 3D-printing systems which are not dependent on a single supplier of equipment or material.


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Few topics are as hot in manufacturing as 3D printing (also termed additive manufacturing). 3D printers spit out bits of metal or plastic in much the same way an ink jet printer spits out ink. While layering ink on ink doesn’t get you much, layering plastic on plastic allows for objects to gradually be built up. Much has been written about the potential impact of this new way of making stuff. Indeed, we already have several posts on the topic. But most of those stories focus on what could happen once the technology develops. How are firms using it now?

That is the topic of an article in today’s Wall Street Journal (Printing Out Barbies and Ford Cylinders, Jun 6). It emphasizes two primary applications. The first is prototyping.

At the Beech Daly Technical Center in Dearborn, Mich., Ford engineers use industrial-grade machines that cost as much as $1 million to produce prototypes of cylinder heads, brake rotors, and rear axles in less time than traditional manufacturing methods, said Paul Susalla, section supervisor of rapid manufacturing at Ford.

Using 3-D printing, Ford saves an average of one month of production time to create a casting for a prototype cylinder head for its EcoBoost family of engines, designed for better fuel efficiency. This complex part includes numerous ports, ducts, passages and valves to manage fuel and air flow.

Mr. Susalla said the traditional casting method, which requires designing both a sand mold as well as the tool to cut the mold, can take four to five months.

You should also check out this video with one of the Ford engineers involved in their digital printing shop. (more…)

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How do you get replacement parts? In a developed country the answer is pretty simple. For some things (e.g., car parts), you may need to go through a dealer or specialized retailer. For others, you may be able to just stop by a general hardware store. But what if you are in a developing nation? Then you might have to get creative.

Markplace had a fun report about craftsmen in Mozambique carving replacement parts (like the gear above) out of ebony (Ebony woodcarvers learn to craft machine parts, Oct 3).

Young Makonde sculptors apprentice for years, sanding and polishing the works of their teachers. They study the ornate canes and traditional busts that are still a bestseller to tourists. But the expert woodcarvers are also finding a market for more “functional” sculptures. Manuel Xavier is a customer here at the woodcarvers’ collective. He repairs gas stoves for a living but has trouble finding spare parts.

MANUEL XAVIER: Here in the north, there is a lack of equipment for gas stoves.

A month ago, Xavier got a call from an unhappy customer. She said that the knobs on her stove had broken off.

XAVIER: I told the woman who owns the stove, “That part isn’t sold here in the North.” Not in stores, or anywhere else. So I decided to have them made out of Pau Preto.

Pau Preto is what the locals call the wood in Portuguese. In English, it’s known as African blackwood, or ebony. …

And versatile. Sculptors have carve parts for espresso makers, sewing machines, and motorcycles. For film projectors, and even computers. Patterson says that storekeepers in Mozambique don’t have the capital to keep spare parts in stock.

The article goes on to report that doing replacement parts is harder than doing creative sculptures. For the latter, there is no formal standard of perfection. Replacement parts, however, must conform to what they replace for them to be useful.

It’s a cute story, but does it have any relevance in the West? We’ll never have hand carved replacement parts, but what if they could printed on demand?


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