Additive Manufacturing Drives Prototype Innovation
3D printers allow for speed and multiple design iterations before production.
Discussions about additive manufacturing and prototyping frequently center solely on speed. But what is often left out of the conversation is the ability to develop more mature products before launch, thanks to the multiple design iteration cycles made possible by a 3D printer, says Scott Welham, general manager of advanced development at GE Appliances.
appliance DESIGN spoke to Welham, and his colleague, Nick Okruch, the manager of GE Appliances’ Rapid Prototyping Center in Louisville, KY, about the advantages of using additive manufacturing for prototyping, and where they see the field progressing in the future.
“It used to be, if you had a certain window to try your new design, if it didn’t go well the first time, people pushed you to mitigate that risk and go right back to the way it was designed before,” Okruch explains. “Now you have the opportunity, because you get a few more iterations to actually further develop that innovative design.”
appliance DESIGN: It’s not hard to imagine the number of possible innovations that were scrapped because engineers didn’t have the time or money to try again.
SCOTT WELHAM: Yeah, we’d have to stop so you could cut the tools for the large, million-per-year volume we need. This is allowing them to get a lot more in prior to that cutoff date when they actually have to order the tools.
AD: Are there common misconceptions about additive manufacturing that you’re regularly correcting?
NICK OKRUCH: Yeah, the biggest one is a lot of people have seen a lot of press about MakerBots and that style of 3D printing. That’s what they have in their mind about what 3D printing is. And then they learn that we can make parts in nylon and Ultem and with stereolithography and all of this… their mind opens up to different possibilities and different ways of doing things than what they originally thought.
AD: As people experiment with using additive manufacturing to make production parts, do you see any technology advancements that then come back to use for prototyping?
OKRUCH: All the development in materials, anything they do to get materials closer to injection-molded materials, or just a larger spectrum of materials, is all going to help prototyping as well as the production.
AD: Have you seen any new materials, in that regard?
OKRUCH: It’s been a year or so, but Ultem is a new material that Stratasys came out with.
WELHAM: Our (material) need is a low-cost thing. What we’re doing to affect that is, Nick is actually building molds, where he can create a mold and then shoot it with the ideal material and get a 100 or so shots out of it.
OKRUCH: We’re using the 3D printing process to make tools in a more frequent time frame, more frequently now. We’ve made thermoform tools, injection molding tools, hydroforming tools and stamping tools, all out of 3D-printed materials.
WELHAM: Which, on the surface, seems silly. But if you think about it, I can print an injection mold one day, run it, get 100 parts out, and then another day I have a second one. And by the way, I can make changes as a result of things not working correctly. So it’s actually much faster, much quicker. And I think that’s a fallacy we get into, we tend to want to use additive for everything. But it’s just another tool for us to use, and how you use it is the more important point.
AD: How has the Rapid Prototyping Center changed since it opened?
WELHAM: I think from a technology standpoint, I’m seeing a lot of things happening where people are trying to combine stuff.
OKRUCH: We’re, again, trying to expand the capability of our printers beyond the standard materials. We had a ZPrinter where we purchased a vacuum infuser to be able to impregnate that material with a phenolic resin that gives you a use temperature up to 650 degrees Fahrenheit. So that’s a much higher temperature than you can get out of most 3D printing material. So, it’s a building up of technologies.
We’re building tooling in the hydroformer, we can form sheet metal around plastic tools. And if you told somebody you’re going to draw a piece of sheet metal around a plastic tool they’d probably look at you like you’re nuts. We’re working on a project right now where we got files yesterday and by tomorrow evening we will be able to draw a piece of sheet metal into a shape and laser cut it and turn it into shape in three days, which is literally unheard of.
AD: So would you say that one of the major trends is combining additive manufacturing with other manufacturing processes to form hybrid processes?
OKRUCH: Yes, and that’s what we’re trying to do with the tooling here. You see that trend in the machine tool industry as well. If you’ve been to the IMTS show or the RAPID show or the FABTECH show, you’ve probably seen a lot of the big guys of the machine tool world are now starting to do hybrid machine and laser deposition. Some of them are doing some machine and powdered processes.
AD: What are some trends in materials?
OKRUCH: We’re really not using any really new materials over the last year. The last new one we added was the FDM nylon which came out about a year ago, if I remember right. But that’s one of the things that I’d like to see made easier by the companies that are out there. The 3D Systems of the world, for example, they lock up their machine. You can’t use other people’s materials in their machine. And that hampers some of the material development. The FDM filament you get from Stratasys, you have to get it from Stratasys.
It’s going to be very interesting—HP is saying that they are going to open their machine up for third-party material development. It will be interesting to see if that doesn’t start putting a little chink in some of the armor of the other manufacturers. Stratasys even showed its new—I don’t know if you saw it at IMTS—its new pellet-driven FDM process. But you had to ask really carefully, they were using a special pellet that you could only get from Stratasys.
WELHAM: The business model they’re using right now is razor blades and razors. They sell the razors at a moderate price, and then the blade they sell you is basically the material. So, to the point you were making earlier, if you could drive this to a pellet system and start getting out of that model so that you don’t have to go buy a very expensive material, and it becomes cheaper in pellet form, you start to get volumes and you start to get (lower) cost. Then all of a sudden you start to have a real chance to make a larger run of products. You almost have to get to the pellet form. And there are some things going on. There are some other people doing it.
From a trend standpoint, that’s going to be an interesting look. Are you going keep this current trend, which I’ve called razorblades and razors? Or are you going to go off and go with pellet, so you can go with volume and get cost down? I think it’s a major shift in the industry if it happens, because if you look at Stratasys and 3D Systems, that’s where they’re making their money. It will be fascinating to watch what happens.
AD: What other trends do you see in the near future?
OKRUCH: I think we’ve talked about the hybrid machines and the machine tool industry as far as metal 3D printing, I think there will be somebody who will follow that way in plastic before too long, similar to Cincinnati Incorporated’s [Big Area Additive Manufacturing program]. Instead of having to FDM a part and then come and take the part out and machine the whole thing, that they will machine it in the same machine while they’re laying down the plastic material. I think that will show up before too long. I think the whole materials thing will continue to expand. I’m not really sure, but the entry of the big guys like HP and now GE, the big GE, into this industry will shake it up. It won’t be all start-ups that make all the innovations, some of those innovations will start coming from the big guys.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.