Much of additive manufacturing’s appeal comes from the long-term promise of new products, new designs and new ways of thinking about production. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t practical, effective ways to put additive manufacturing to work right now, today. While additive manufacturing for large-scale production is a way off for almost every manufacturer, current 3D printers are well-suited for many shopfloor applications, including creating tools, gauges and other manufacturing aids.
The 3D-printed part shown was created to speed up setup tasks for a production line. The part is a model of a forged track link, a component of the chain-like assembly found on dozers and other track-type equipment
This is the approach that heavy equipment manufacturer Caterpillar has taken in its Rapid Prototyping lab, founded in 1990. Though the company has a long-term interest in using additive to produce at least some parts for its dozers, excavators and other equipment, it is taking advantage of the technology right now to make practical shopfloor tools for its own employees. The lab, now a part of the newly formed Caterpillar Additive Manufacturing Group, uses additive processes such as FDM, stereolithography and SLS to produce gages, display and scale models, assembly fixtures, hand tools, and other functional pieces for use in its own facilities. Though these aren’t end-use products, the parts the lab produces offer returns in the form of decreased costs and reduced development time due to quicker iteration turnaround.
The 3D-printed part shown was created to speed up setup tasks for a production line. The part is a model of a forged track link, a component of the chain-like assembly found on dozers and other track-type equipment. In the past, workers would have used heavy models made from wood when creating fixturing and programming CMMs. Or, they would have waited for the parts themselves to arrive from the foundry. With 3D printing, Caterpillar made 36 ABS polycarbonate models of the track link. The lightweight models were much easier to handle and allowed employees to complete setup more quickly. The company estimates that making this change saved $160,000 in time and labour.