Sure, 3D Printing or additive manufacturing (AM) is cool new technology, and things like 3D scanning, 3D CAD, cloud, and the Internet of Things (IoT) all sound pretty sexy. You've heard that all this stuff should be considered part of the new wave of foundry technology, yet your organization doesn't have this stuff and you may be wondering what it takes to get there.
Step 1: Future State — First, let’s look at the target, the end state, and then work back to where you are now. If you don't have a road map and a clear destination, how can you plan to get there? The vision, at least as we see it, looks something like this:
Much of the high-volume work is done the way you're doing it now. There's a reason things are tooled and it will still be a long time before it makes sense to 3D-print manhole covers, pipes, or counterweights. Some things just need to be a big piece of iron.
The rest of the jobs are up for grabs. Pumps, turbos, pipefittings, semi-customized engines, spare parts, and low-volume production items of all sorts. For these jobs, the 3D mold and core data will go right into the 3D printer. Molds and cores will be printed, prepped, and poured by humans using robotic assistance for safety and efficiency.
Shakeout, sprue removal, post machining, and casting inspection will be part of the same line. By pairing humans with 3D printing and robotics, much of the programming time and nearly all of the labor associated with producing a casting will be eliminated. Smart inspection tools, like robots with cameras, and smart finishing stations like robotic milling systems, will speed up final processing and quality control. Vision systems and robotics have already been paired by companies like ABB. Companies like Authentise are releasing vision systems that inspect 3D parts while they are being built. QC data from every step can be processed by the computers, and operators are notified of problems in real time. Remember, automation without control can make a lot of bad parts.
Advanced warehouse and inventory control tactics being used by the likes of Amazon.com, continue to come down in price. Soon you'll be able to generate an ID tag for each job and the production and quality data will be automatically accumulated and processed in the cloud. This means that your factory makes less waste. It also means your customers will have confidence that things are in good control.
That’s the goal – your smart factory assists your workers in the efficient production, inspection, and delivery of high-quality castings, whether you are producing order of one or 1 million castings. Profit goes up, revenues go up, liabilities go down. It sounds easy, doesn’t it?
Step 2: Getting there — We just laid out several technology areas that need to be researched, acquired, tested, and implemented. Also, operators need to be trained to use that technology and customers need to know that what they are getting from you smart factory is as good or better than what they are getting now. Most likely, you'll need some sort of system to organize, analyze, and report all the data - and that should be easy for you and your customers to use.
Breaking this vision into the elements that make it work will require to grasp several aspects of the "smart" production line. Luckily, you don't have to implement everything all at once, and no specific order is required.
• CAD data: what you are making or the virtual equivalent of a 2D drawing. This shows you what to make. It is a model of the final casting, with sprues, risers, chills, vents ... the works. It also may be CAD for molds and cores to be made.
• Digital manufacturing system: how you are making it. This may be a robot-based 3D printer (like the Viridis3D RAM260) to make molds and cores. Or, it may be something like an Arcam or EOS system capable of making fully dense metal parts direct from CAD. Other, more familiar options are CNC milling machines, robotic sand milling stations, etc. Post processing systems like grinders also fall into this category.
• Robotic assist, VR tools, and work handling. Robot-assisted pouring is growing more popular. Operators can stand back safely and be more precise when pouring. Conveyors and rotary tables are common, too. Together, they bring similar advantages to advanced manufacturing. As automation progresses, small robotic vehicles can take a hot casting from the floor, to shakeout, and shot blast, overcoming the limitations of conveyor-type work handling. Imagine a little robotic waiter, taking the 3D-printed molds from the printer, to cleanout, to the pouring station, and through all downstream processes. You could focus human resources on the more engaging tasks.
• 3D-scanning/inspection software, vision systems: How you are inspecting it. Robotics developers already have incorporated "smart cameras" that instantly compare a part to the image or "print" of what that part should look like. Operators working with these systems get better, faster QC data. Higher-volume production systems can substantially eliminate the operator for routine inspections.
• RFID job tracking. A number of companies supply RFID "paperless travelers" for work in process. These simple chips will link to the full history of a part, from order to print and packaging, giving you real-time data on costs, scrap rates, and wastes, such as storage and excess movement. They also can be used to route jobs through the factory.
• Real-time process monitoring. Automation will not help you if you start making bad parts and don't know about it. Process monitoring technology, e.g., software suites by Authentise, can eliminate the fear of overproducing low-quality products. Software can monitor a 3D printer, layer by layer, and automate the maintenance cycles. It also can alert the operator of anything that the printer cannot fix on its own, essentially pausing the process.
What Do You Have Now?
Using the same methodology, video inspection tools and laser scanners can compare physical parts directly to the CAD files, showing all sorts of process issues in real time. These systems can email or text operators, letting them know when and where intervention is required.
Step 3: What do you have now? — You probably have or can hire the right people. They may need training, and we advocate training anyone that has potential, instead of hiring someone new who isn't familiar with your products, process, and customers. The goal of adding new technology is to make your current organization more scalable and more profitable. Most suppliers of software, hardware, and materials also offer training.
More and more foundries have at least one employee who can use CAD. Whether you standardize around a desktop CAD (e.g., SolidWorks) or a newer cloud-based systems (e.g., OnShape), having a fully functional seat of CAD software should be a standard part of your operation already.
Simulation is becoming more common in U.S. foundries, too. These software tools help to predict the quality of a casting, reduce waste, and optimize the process. If you don't have a simulation package now, it’s likely you will have one soon.
CNC machines, additive manufacturing systems, laser cutters, and many other options are already on the shop floor. These technologies are changing design and manufacturing. Look for options to integrate these systems with the rest of your technology upgrades, and efficiencies should continue to improve.
Another trend in foundry technology is the incorporation of digital inspection. Technologies like CMM, 3D scanners, or video inspection systems speed data collection, and make it more thorough, and often can process data in real time, showing an image that highlights tolerance issues.
Analyze what you have to build your roadmap to the future by keeping an eye on what best suits your process and your customers’ needs.
All of the software and systems discussed are available now which means it is time to get ready for 3D!
Start with the QC / Inspection systems. After that, introduce 3D printing tools that make use of your customers CAD data, and then work your way back to making your own mold designs. You may have customers that are fine with traditional inspection systems, but are pushing you to jump right into 3D printing, to save them tooling and inventory charges. In that case, start by getting CAD and a 3D printer. Once you're reliably printing molds and cores you can look at optimizing the rest of the process.
There's a different strategy for each foundry. However, if you wait to ponder all the new technology before you implement any of it you'll probably be out of date by the time you make your investment. Study your near-term and long-term targets to identify the technology that will get you there, implement, optimize, and analyze, and you'll keep your foundry competitive for the long term.
Will Shambley is the president of Viridis3D LLC, developers of additive manufacturing technology for producing sand molds and cores. Visit www.viridis3d.com