Additive manufacturing has received a lot of press lately for its use in making small plastic components and toys for artists and hobbyists, but one company is pushing for something a little bigger.
Started in May of 2014 by Blackwood Labs president, Jim Blackwood, +Mfg (Plus Manufacturing) has a developed a system capable of 3-D printing large-scale, industrial-grade products out of metal: the +1000K 3-D metal deposition machine.
The +1000 was the product of a brainstorming session between Blackwood and his associate, Tom Kruer, which began with the question: "Wouldn't it be nice if we could just have a 3-D printer knock out the metal part that we need for the project?"
The question was partly facetious, since everyone in manufacturing knows how expensive and complicated it is to purchase and operate a 3-D printer for metal deposition.
Not only expensive, but time-consuming, laborious and dangerous.
It requires either a high power laser with metal particles (which is a health and safety hazard) or it uses an electron beam to fuse the material.
After that initial conversation, Kruer and Blackwood began working on a way to do additive manufacturing by adding thicker layers of metal, so a part could be made more quickly than with current 3-D technology.
Faster, cheaper and safer became their mantra.
The next facetious question they asked was, "Could we sell a +Mfg machine to Ferrari and have them build an engine block with the technology?"
That was sufficient incentive to target the automotive industry—to lure OEMs with the idea of not only printing out parts, but building dies for steel stamping.
"We took this idea around to a lot of different people in a lot of different industries and told them, 'This is what we're thinking, would you find a practical use for it?,'" Kruer recalls. "The overwhelming response was, 'How soon can we get one?'"
If the company has its way, this is the year.
Partnering for Success: Parker Hannifin
To build a new 3-D printing platform large enough and stable enough to print an engine block, +Mfg called in support from its partners at industrial giant, Parker Hannifin.
"Parker was our first choice for the motion control because we knew its reputation in this field," says Paul Saleba, a +Mfg associate.
"When we first started doing some of the prototypes just to prove the technology would work, our engineers went to the Parker headquarters and talked to them, and described what we were trying to achieve," he said. "Parker was very helpful and very excited because they saw the potential of this technology transforming parts production for many industries."
At the time, Parker offered motion controllers for numerical path planning, but they were in beta testing with the Parker Automation Controller (PAC), which is far better suited for 3-D numerical control and includes all the features they needed, like pre-processed path planning, path smoothing, tool correction, among others.
The question then became, would +Mfg be willing to apply a nascent controller to its nascent 3-D machine?
The company agreed to collaborate with Parker on co-developing their respective products.
"By doing this it gave us the opportunity to put the PAC through its paces on a real life machine and find any bugs," says Aaron Turano, Electromechanical Territory Manager for Parker Hannifin's Automation Group / Electromechanical Division.
"The testing this division had done with numerical control (CNC G-code) capabilities allowed us to build our knowledge base in a live application," he says. "It involved selecting the right actuators to manipulate the torch and lay down the medium. We had to provide a stiff machine that didn't wiggle around when it was in motion and was fully supported. The selection of the actuators, the motors, and drives was pretty straightforward. One of the key values Parker added was the ability to engineer the complete motion solution from the mechanics to the controls."
The +1000K Emerges
The +1000K solution begins with a CAD design for a part (say, a piston rod) being downloaded into the computer, which communicates with the controller, which in turn communicates with the 3-D printer equipped with the appropriate depositing heads.
The controller is vital to the fine motion control of those heads, enabling them to accurately deposit the steel, aluminum, or whatever substrate is required. It may even involve multiple materials, as the table is big enough to accommodate multiple parts at one time.
"Steel is obviously easier to work with, but aluminum would just be a matter of tweaking the amount of power that goes into the deposition heads," says Saleba. "One of the unique things about our technology is that we can very quickly switch from steel to aluminum or other alloys. So, for an engine block for example, the outside can just be normal steel alloy, but our machine will have the ability to do the cylinder sleeves in aluminum if necessary. It will quickly and automatically switch over from steel to aluminum and back with a changeover of just a matter of a few minutes. Of course, all this will require adjustments in power, deposition rate, thickness and head speed, which will seamlessly be handled by the Parker PAC controller.
Faster, Cheaper and Safer
+Mfg has its sights set on replacing castings and parts machined from billets.
"Once the engineers have the computer design, they can put that design into the +1000K and they can produce a gear in near net shape," Saleba concludes. "A very small amount of machining will get it to the specifications that you need, as opposed to machining a gear out of a billet and then putting it on a CNC machine using different axes of motion to get it right."
With the ability to make parts 24 hours a day with little operator oversight, he believes this machine could pay for itself within 18 months to two years, whether making prototypes or production parts.
That's not only due to quick changeovers, but the elimination of milling, housekeeping and hazards. The machine is enclosed, uses filters and works off a 220 line. Because it is self-contained, it doesn't require ducting, making installation simple.