The pressure is on. Companies must not only improve lead time, quality and customer service, they must simultaneously create new products in order to keep current customers and attract new ones.
Luckily there is a technology that can address—and solve—these issues.
3-D printing, a technology that offers companies the ability to print out new product prototypes, can attract new customers who can help keep a company competitive. It also can address operational issues by improving lead time, quality and safety when parts are printed onsite to address specific production problems.
For EVCO Plastics (www.evcoplastics.com), what began as an effort to keep current with emerging technology has turned into a tool that is creating more efficient operations, saving money, improving lead time and providing a competitive advantage. Not bad for a machine.
EVCO, a custom plastic injection molding manufacturer, had used 3-D technology from local services providers and watched OEM clients use the technology for a number of years. But the time came a few years ago when the company knew it needed to bring the technology in-house, if only to discover its potential uses.
Deciding which machine and at what price point proved to be a more difficult task than at first glance. While the larger machines had broader capabilities, the price tag involved a higher capital investment than the company wanted to make. After extensive evaluation, EVCO chose a smaller machine which allowed the design engineering group to produce parts with regard to milling and electrical discharge machining.
"While there was a learning curve, we did find the printed parts useful for internal operations, such as smaller parts needed to improve factory processes, and for design and modeling purposes" explains Mark McDonald, design manager at EVCO. At issue was the strength of the parts—they just weren't strong enough for the majority of applications.
In November 2014 the problem was solved with the purchase of a Mark One machine from MarkForged (www.markforged.com), which has the capability to print continuous carbon fiber. This technology uses a 3-D printing process referred to as CFF (composite filament fabrication) in combination with traditional FFF (fused filament fabrication). The technique produces fiber-reinforced composite parts, which are up to 20 times stiffer and five times stronger than parts printed using neat plastic.
The 3-D printer produces outer contours and curves in engineering nylon and fills each part with close-packed reinforcement in continuous carbon fiber, Kevlar or fiberglass. The printer actively switches between two nozzles during a print, creating fiber-reinforced plastic parts with a strength-to-weight ratio better than aluminum.
As a result, EVCO now has the ability to shorten design cycles and offer viable parts immediately after printing.
"Investing in this technology improved automation and fixturing, and drastically reduced the time to create complex parts and pieces," says McDonald. "These parts can be measured and tested immediately after printing, making them a vital element to the design process and bringing results to our clients much faster."
New Levels of Collaboration
One of the most successful applications of the machine was printing coordinate measuring machine (CMM) fixtures. Making sure that customer part specifications are accurate using traditional CMM fixtures can require an entire day of set-up. Because of the time requirements, EVCO had a huge backlog that required three full-time employees. Now the company can print out fixtures in a matter of minutes and with increased accuracy.
Internal operations benefitted as well. Tools, such as end-of-arm tools, that could take a week to machine can now be designed in the morning and pulled out of a 3-D printer that afternoon. Not only does it save time but the company saves money on the small fixes and improvements.
Safety is another area that is being bolstered. For example, a part necessary for a new transportation product was difficult to mold. This led to potential injuries, inaccuracy and a lot of scrap. 3-D printed guards and shields that protect workers during the production process was the solution to all three problems.
From a competitive perspective 3-D printing enhances the sales process. "It's a real advantage to walk into a conference room with new product in hand," says McDonald "Anything that you can bring to the table helps sell the company's capability."
The design aspect of this new technology has allowed EVCO to collaborate with customers in a way they were unable to do so previously. For example, the company works with its refrigerator OEM manufacturers to design internal parts, such as an egg holder.
"We use 3-D printing to demonstrate the finished product, and are now part of the discussion as to how design can affect the eventual manufacturing of the part," McDonald explains. "This technology takes design and manufacturing to a whole new level that is only limited by the imagination."