The recent Methods open house and technical seminar event included the public premiere of its new partnership with 3D Systems. Seen here at the Methods event (the tallest machine just past the crowd) is the 3D Systems Prox300 machine for production 3D printing of dense metal parts and a selection of parts grown on the machine.
Methods Machine Tools’ “Techfest 2015” event was the public premiere of the company’s newly signed partnership with additive manufacturing technology supplier 3D Systems. Alongside its machine tool offerings from brands such as Nakamura-Tome, Kiwa, Yasda, Feeler, FANUC, Hanwa and Current EDM, Methods will now also supply 3D Systems equipment for additively producing polymer, ceramic or dense metal industrial parts.
Significantly, Methods says it will also help companies succeed with these additive technologies. In the machine tool sphere, the company aims to be a “solution” provider rather than solely an equipment provider, and it is known for turnkey installation of engineered systems combining machining technology with support equipment such as automation. Company President and CEO Bryon Deysher says the company will bring the same kind of engineering support to its sales of additive manufacturing technology.
“We are all in,” he said, describing his company’s commitment to additive manufacturing in remarks to an audience of attendees to the Techfest event. One of the challenges of additive manufacturing is that large companies can afford to invest in the learning curve necessary to succeed with additive, but small to midsize manufacturers struggle with this. He says Methods’ aim will be to fill this very gap, by staffing up with technical personnel focused on additive manufacturing who can guide customers along the way to successfully and efficiently applying this technology to industrial production.
Growing that staff will be part of Methods’ long-term investment in advancing additive technology, he says. He expects manufacturers will evaluate additive with a similarly long view. “I believe, if you are not thinking about this now, you’ll wish you were in two years,” he said at the event.
One of the company’s new hires is Benjamin Fisk. Until a couple of months ago, Fisk was a manufacturing technology manager overseeing AM efforts at Pratt & Whitney. Now, he has joined Methods as the general manager of what will eventually become a nationwide additive manufacturing team for the company, ready to support the AM efforts of companies much smaller and less well known than his former employer.
For these small and midsize manufacturers, he says, there are significant challenges today that inhibit additive manufacturing gaining ground. The burden of AM development and integration generally falls on users, he says. When it comes to development, a general lack of process knowledge leads to significant developmental costs. And when it comes integration, this effort has to be inclusive of a complete process from design through inspection.
“You can’t think about 3D printing as just a standalone process,” Fisk said.
Methods can help with this entire range of challenges, he says. The company can engineer a system for additive manufacturing that includes postprocessing equipment and other support capabilities. And it can assist customers to refine and prove out not just the additive portion of the process, but instead the entire part-making sequence including the additive step.
The Techfest event showed various equipment likely to be included in processes such as this. In a conversation with Fisk, I asked him to indicate machine tools at the event likely to be useful for processing 3D-printed metal parts. He pointed to wire EDM first, as this is frequently the best method for removing printed parts from their build platform. Next in the sequence might be a small five-axis machining center, he said—that is, a machine able to make the necessary finishing passes for the kind of geometrically intricate workpiece that additive manufacturing is able to produce.
The integration with machining is vital to success of additive manufacturing, because production AM parts almost always require machining for critical features and tolerances. Methods says an additive part-making process might include post-processing capabilities such as wire EDM (left) for cutting the part from the build platform as well as five-axis machining (right) for finishing complex forms. The company sees its ability to provide all of these capabilities—additive and subtractive—as being one of its important strengths in advancing AM.
Another capability seen at the event was robotic loading of both standalone and multiple machines. Integrating robots is a common part of Methods’ turnkey engineering. The company’s robotic installations to date have been for subtractive machine tools, but now this same kind of integration of automation might soon be applied to production processes involving additive manufacturing as well.
Here are two examples of complex custom tool concepts that Quinn Saw can print and provide to customers so they can more easily comprehend the overall design concept compared to basic illustrations.
Say you need a custom cutting tool that’s likely to cost you a few grand. Would you rather the cutting tool manufacturer you’re considering provide you with a CAD model or printout of the design or, better yet, a 3D-printed prototype of it?
Started in 1903, Quinn Saw is a single-family-owned business that’s now into its fifth generation. Bill and Joe Zickel are the current owner-operators (4th generation). The company’s core business has always been reconditioning saw blades and manufacturing new ones, but it has since branched out into custom tooling with Troy as the lead designer.
Troy actually worked for Hydromat from 1997 to 2007 as a tooling engineer, engaging with Quinn Saw (Hydromat’s primary blade supplier for its rotary transfer machines) on many projects to improve the barstock sawing process using HSS and carbide-tipped blades. After joining Quinn Saw in 2007, Troy started developing custom tools, such as the printed prototypes shown above, for unique customer applications.
So why the 3D printer for prototypes? Troy says one reason is that his tooling designs often have intricate features and details that are difficult for many people to fully understand and appreciate just looking at paper illustrations. Plus, the people making the purchasing decisions often are not as familiar with the project as their engineering staff, so the printed models enable the decision makers to have something really close to the actual tool in hand, making it easier to comprehend the overall concept.
But another reason had to do with preventing possible interferences. He points to a tool that took 8 weeks to manufacture. Although the customer was happy with how it looked, the tool ultimately didn’t fit into the required space due to an interference with another device in the tight machine environment. This required rushing the tool back and forth between parties for revisions, which was expensive, but Troy notes the biggest impact was the unexpected delay and black eye for providing a tool that was not functional upon receiving it. After resolving the issues and providing a successful tool, Quinn Saw management met to determine how to prevent this from happening again. The idea of using a 3D printer for prototypes was brought up, so Dan Zickel (of the company’s fifth generation) was tasked with sorting through all of the available 3D printer types and options to determine what model was most suitable and cost effective for its needs. After significant reviews of the vast array of machine types, sizes and cost, Dan narrowed it down to the Formlabs Form 1+, which it purchased this past February. This printer offered a suitable printing envelope with a very reasonable cost as well as high printing definition.
Quinn Saw chose this Formlabs Form 1+ SLA 3D printer because it offered a suitable printing envelope, a very reasonable cost and high printing definition.
The machine was purchased just before this year’s Precision Machining Technology Show (PMTS) in Columbus, Ohio. This enabled Troy to print and offer models of concepts to show attendees rather than just pictures. Plus, having high-cost actual tooling on a show display table typically isn’t practical or cost effective unless you have a guaranteed avenue in which to sell it afterwards. The 3D printer is also used to scale up small tool features (see the photo below) that would normally require viewing through a magnifying or inspection device, which sometimes isn’t practical at a trade show or in front of a customer.
The company’s 3D printer is also used to scale up small tool features that would otherwise require a magnifying or inspection device to see.
The company sees value in using its 3D printer in other ways, too. For example, Troy says coolant delivery has been a problem for one of Quinn Saw’s grinding machines that has an articulating head. The company is considering printing a new guard with internal coolant ports. Although this design would be costly and impractical to produce via conventional machining, the 3D printer could produce the complex part at little expense. Then after experimenting with the printed guard on the grinding machine, it’d be easy to tweak the design if necessary and simply print another to try.
Troy cautions that while 3D printing technology is helpful, it’s not perfect. Quinn Saw’s 3D printer uses support material during printing that basically snaps off after the part is printed, but leaves small imperfections where it was attached. Those must be removed by filing and or sanding. Plus, there is a fair amount of physical cleanup on printed components to make them all fit precisely and look more presentable—parts don’t just emerge from the resin batch complete and perfect. But in his experience, while the technology is still in its infancy, it is evolving rapidly and so are the machines that do the printing.
There was a time when EDM machine maker Chmer (Taichung City, Taiwan) might have expected high speed milling to take the place of a significant amount of die sinker EDM work. The company developed a line of high speed milling machines to complement its sinker, wire and holemaking EDM machines in anticipation of this change. But things didn’t work out that way—illustrating, among other things, how difficult it is to predict technology adoption. On a recent trip to Taiwan, I had a chance to speak about this with Chmer Marketing Director Brad Wang.
While the ability to take fast, accurate cuts at high feed rates potentially makes milling a contender for certain complex die/mold forms that sinker EDM is used to produce, EDM is still more efficient for features such as deep cavities, fins and many thin walls. These features occur just often enough that high speed milling has not been able to unseat the established technology to any considerable extent. However, high speed milling has proven popular among Chmer’s customers nevertheless, not as a replacement for EDM but as a complement. The fast, accurate cutting is efficient for roughing complex mold forms before the sinker EDM is used to complete those features that EDM is still the best at finishing.
The technology needs and preferences of customers reveal themselves over time, Mr. Wang says. His hope is for Chmer to continue to adapt. Here are the EDM features and capabilities right now that he sees as becoming increasingly important:
1. Linear Motors. Among each of the company’s EDM types (and its milling machines) are models equipped with linear motors for axis motion. Linear motor machines cost more than machines driven by ballscrews, Mr. Wang says, but these motors save cost through reduced maintenance while improving the accuracy of the machine. Compared to conventional drives, a wire EDM machine with linear motors can generate sharper corners on precise components such as die punches. More, linear motors maintain their accuracy over time. This is not the case with ballscrews, which wear and become less precise over time due to the ongoing surface-to-surface contact.
2. Machine Monitoring. Applications of EDM often involve rows of machines all running largely unattended because the cycles are so long. The unattended nature of the process makes the machines ideal for monitoring systems permitting remote viewing of the current status of the machine as well its performance history over time. Chmer’s in-house control has enabled the company to develop its own remote monitoring system, among other special features. (Read on.)
3. Ease of Use. The in-house control has also enabled Chmer to develop a programming system enabling inexperienced users to employ EDM effectively. An operator can enter the workpiece material and diameter of the wire along with the desired roughness of the machined surface to let the control automatically set the cutting conditions and parameters required.
4. Hole Making. Among the three EDM types, holemaking looks to offer the most potential for future growth, says Mr. Wang, thanks to the long-term likely demand for cooling hole machining in turbine components by the aerospace sector. Key capabilities here include precise CNC interpolation to give small holes with a diffuser (open funnel) form at the mouth, as well as integration with B-axis indexing for the array of angles characteristic of the set of holes in a typical blade.
Chmer’s AD4L is a linear-motor equipped holemaking EDM.
For this demonstration, the robot performed both workpiece pallet changeout and simulated polishing operations of machined parts.
I’ve been aware of the Run MyRobot capability available with Siemens Sinumerik controls for a little while, but I believe the cell below that was in Handtmann’s EMO Milan booth represents the first time I’ve seen a demonstration of the concept using an actual machine tool.
The idea is to provide intuitive robot programming capability at a machine’s CNC via the Sinumerik Operate GUI. In the case of this cell, the execution of the movements of the six-axis Kuka KR 600 Fortec robot (with 600-kg load capacity), provision of robot safety functions and other robot-specific functions are performed by the Kuka KR C4 robot control. However, that control is connected to the Handtmann five-axis HBZ Trunnion 80 machine’s Sinumerik 840D sl CNC. Therefore, the machine tool operations and robot program can be tracked and controlled on one screen via parallel channels.
The machine tool operations and robot program can be tracked and controlled on one CNC screen via parallel channels (the robot channel is shown here).
For this demonstration, the robot performed both workpiece pallet changeout (using Schunk clamping systems) and simulated polishing operations of machined parts. Of course, the robot can be used to perform a range of secondary operations, including drilling, brushing and deburring, depending on a manufacturer’s needs.
Check out this video that shows the cell at the show.
Amanda Raney joined Whelen Engineering after working in administration at a local hospital. Less than a year later she is already in charge of managing the company’s tool crib, which is a sophisticated and critical operation. Workers with backgrounds outside of manufacturing can provide fresh and interesting perspectives.
If you take a look at the resumes of those hired by Whelen Engineering—based in Chester, Connecticut, with an additional facility in Charlestown, New Hampshire—you’ll find they come from a wide variety of backgrounds. Some were teachers, while others worked in retail or stocking shelves at supermarkets. This can be seen in a number of ways. One is that manufacturing is an attractive alternative to many types of employment, paying good wages with benefits including health care and retirement plans and allowing workers to learn valuable skills. Another is in line with the philosophy of John Olson, former president of Whelen Engineering, who says “it’s not easy to find good employees, you have to grow them.” This is evident in the training provided to all of the company’s employees, which is conducted on-site by an instructor from a local community tech center. Topics include controls, programming, writing G code and metrology. At the same time, the company believes it’s best to provide hands-on learning activities from the very beginning.
“If someone was hired to become a machine operator and has no experience with CNC machining, we’ll start them off doing basic operations as simple as loading the machine, hitting the green button, and then unloading it at the end of the cycle,” says Jeff Kochis, production machine shop manager. “We believe that it’s important for them to be comfortable with the machine and not afraid of it. That way they’ll be eager to learn more.”
Whelen is also thinking strategically, offering an “Intro to Manufacturing” course to area middle-school students to give them a taste of everything from design manufacturing and machining to working with sheet metal and injection molding. By planting this seed of an idea early, the company hopes students will consider manufacturing as a career once they’ve graduated high school. “One of the reasons we keep the shop floor so clean is that we never know when there will be a tour coming through,” Mr. Kochis says with a laugh.