Machine Builders Make Parts by Addition

ExOne, MAG Hit the Sweet Spot by Simplifying, Reducing the Cost of Complex Parts

By Joe Feeley

Here's a quick note about two of the many slick things at September's IMTS 2012. The event now includes an Industrial Automation North America (IANA) conference and exhibitor component produced by Deutsche Messe, the folks who do the Hannover Fair.

In halls dominated by machining centers, I found a very different machine that doesn't cut metal to make industrial-grade parts. It builds parts layer by layer.

This is additive manufacturing. Some methods are called 3D printing. Five or six companies exhibited various types of this technology. In the Emerging Technologies Center, ExOne showed one of its machines, which in basic terms is a giant inkjet printer with a z axis. It selectively dispenses chemical binder into thin layers of powdered metal or plastics. This additive process creates parts or molds for parts directly from CAD data. Its sweet spot is simplifying and reducing the cost of complex parts, including those with quantities that make molds too costly. Lot size rendered unimportant? Consider that.

Process control is dedicated, hardwired and proprietary in these companies. Standards-based control holds too much risk to their intellectual property. So, as this industry matures, won't they need more-open systems to keep up? "All these systems came from very proprietary ideas in the back room, and not shared one bit," says Dan Maas, who does business development for ExOne. "We won't open up the PLC to customers, let alone process control. We won't risk the liability of crashing a $30,000–40,000 print head."

You see similarities with the way the semiconductor industry's wafer processing evolved from unique control systems designed by the ChEs who were in charge then, not the EEs. It worked, though yields were awful, and they eventually untangled the homegrown, one-of-a-kind stuff to more-manageable, standardized systems as production and quality demanded more.

"On our list of 1,000 things to do, controls isn't at the top," Maas told me. I understand. But if this industry grows like it looks capable of during the next five years, better controls will climb that list fast.

I also visited the cryogenic tool-cooling process for machining titanium in the MAG booth. It got a lot of buzz at IMTS 2010 with claims of faster cutting, longer tool life, and big environmental advantages.

MAG had the process on a new five-axis HMC, and on a retrofitted VMC. The focus has been on the hardest materials such as titanium, nickel-based alloys, and compacted-graphite iron, although MAG maintains that the ROI should work for less-difficult materials. They can't prove it yet, but they say the economics of the environmental savings and eliminating flood cooling will stand on its own.

The process was approved by the U.S. government for roughing titanium components for the F-35 fighter, and MAG expects finished machining approvals by early 2013. Catch up on the story: "Make Parts From the Inside Out?"