Reforming Forming and the Concepts Shaping It

March 14, 2017
The role of 3D printing in manufacturing metal parts is leading businesses like foundries and diecasters in directions that have not been fully imagined. The changes introduced by additive manufacturing involve more than parts are formed, but just as importantly how such operations now define the purpose of their business.

Start-ups are offering technologies and services that raise questions about, and offer alternatives to, the ways that parts are formed — and even bigger issues
The start-up of Agile Casting Solutions’ new 3D printer earlier this year did not seem like the starting point for a new metalcasting venture; the tiled room appeared more like a classroom than a factory floor, and the operation itself was reasonably quiet, barely audible because of the onlookers’ applause.  The new business’s metalcasting lineage is clear, and it’s work will surely be a boon to foundries and diecasters looking to speed up and modernize their mold and coremaking capabilities, but the role of 3D printing in manufacturing metal parts seems to be heading in directions that have not been fully imagined. 

Agile Casting Solutions is a business unit of Humtown Products, an established supplier of specialty sand cores and molds to foundries, but that market segment is changing and Humtown Products developed the new business together with Youngstown State University and America Makes, the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute. In addition to producing complex sand molds and cores for commercial programs, ACS will be a classroom and laboratory for YSU engineering students, and an incubator for new business projects testing materials or production methods, or building prototypes.

The  2,800-sq.ft. operation houses an ExOne S-Max printer, one of the largest in the U.S. producing sand molds, cores, and patterns. It has a 1,800x1,000x700-mm build area (LxWxH), with a build speed of 2.12-3.00 ft3/hour. Such systems use bonded sand as a printing medium to form complex shapes according to patterns derived from CAD programs.

The step from molds and cores to casting parts is clear enough for foundries, so the availability of this production capability to source their existing operations is likely to excite that market segment. But, the emerging realization for all manufacturers is that forming technology is taking a new direction thanks to additive manufacturing, and that the metalcasting industry we recognize now may be just one avenue extending from an industrial center that influences and designs manufacturers of any size, scale, or material focus. 

“Ahead of technology comes three-dimensional thinking and leadership,” according to Humtown Products president and CEO Mark Lamoncha. “That’s the kind of thinking and leadership we are seeing with YSU and America Makes. As a team, including the expertise of YSU faculty and students, we look forward to refining this new technology, making the metalcasting industry even stronger.”

For example, one of the new enterprises using Agile Casting Solutions as a launch center is called Freshmade3D. Not a foundry in any ordinary sense, it calls itself a digital manufacturer that works with customers to develop cost-effective routes to producing custom parts and custom tooling, for design and reverse engineering, or for low-volume manufacturing. The parts it designs are printed in bonded sand, which becomes the form of the finished part. A proprietary coating and finishing process completes the process.

ExOne, the developer of the 3D sand printing process adopted by ACS (and others) sees metalcasting as one of the primary markets for its technologies: in January it revamped its North American marketing efforts to reemphasize to its industrial sand-core and mold services. The changes involve expanding its technology service centers around its binder jet 3D printing services. Those centers in Michigan and Texas will provide a greater variety of binder and material sets, including cold-hardening phenolic and sodium-silicate production, and a wider range of ExOne 3D printer platforms and options – becoming something like sand mold- and core-printing service centers.

Of course, a few foundries have installed additive manufacturing capability, but such an investment recalls the question about the wider role for 3D printing in forming parts. And, it invites a new question: what is the full potential of a business centered on 3D printing?

This month, a software developer will launch a program it developed for 3D printers whose focus is metal parts – structures printed as layers of metal powders, each layer then fused by laser sintering into a finished form.

The developer, a Belgian start-up called Thrinno, is introducing a product that will allow the AM service providers to determine professional quotations quickly for prospective customers, with the further option of visual design feedback for their clients.

AM service providers must take a series of steps to get from design to print, which makes estimating time-consuming, and risky. Aside from a basic quality check, they have to take into account various factors to ensure printability. “Getting to a successful print and a reasonable price is not only dependent on the orientation of the part on the build plate, but is also dependent on the type of other parts in the same print job and their respective orientation on the build plate,” Thrinno’s announcement explained. The part supplier also has to take into account material usage, thermal stresses, and various other physical factors involved in production — all this prior to landing the contract.

Drawing from software functions used in 3D design and visual evaluation, Thrinno expects to help part designers and metal 3D printers to work together easily and quickly, and cost-effectively. 

The ‘Thrinno Fast Quote’ tool has four steps: (1) The 3D printer makes a profile of an order, and (2) then imports a model of the part, to which different algorithms are applied to identify the amount of support material, surfaces to be finished afterwards, thermal stresses, etc. (3) Based on these results, and a chosen set of quality parameters, a price and quality score are calculated, while taking into account the occupation rate on the build plate. (4) When the optimal orientation is chosen, a quotation is generated with visual feedback.

The arrival of a tool for quoting 3D printing production parts is evidence of the maturation of the metal 3DP sector — and an indicator of the opportunities opening up around the potential for additive manufacturing. It also reminds foundries and diecasters that the changes in manufacturing involve more than how they form parts, but just as importantly how they define their business.