Eaton announced its Vehicle Group is implementing a new 3D metal printing program as a part of its Industry 4.0 strategy to reduce development time and improve efficiency.
The first metal printer system was installed at the Kings Mountain, N.C., facility, and a global deployment of 3D polymer printing technology is slated to be completed by the first quarter of 2021, the company says.
The 3D printers are being utilized to create high-quality fixtures, safety devices, automation grippers for assembly and handling, and maintenance components requiring replacement. Prototype development is following the same strategy to support faster product development trials and improve efficiency.
To speed up the design process, scanners are used to create 3D models of existing components. This process allows components to be reverse-engineered to better leverage 3D printing capabilities, including changing component design to use less material, the addition of different topography elements or consolidating multiple components into a single part.
As an increasing number of 3D printers are deployed across the globe, Eaton’s Vehicle Group has been realizing further operational improvements including lead-time reduction and cost savings.
The 3D printing technology adds material only where it is needed and allows more advanced designs to be developed. Together, these two factors reduce the amount of post-processing operations needed while reducing material cost, the company says.
The process to print metal parts and components begins with powdered metal stored in a rod and held together by wax and a polymer binder. Similar to extrusion, the metal is melted, and the 3D printer begins to add layer after layer, based on its programmed schematics.
Once the printing process is complete, the part or component is run through a chemical bath to remove most of the polymer binder. The part then goes through a furnace to remove the remaining wax and polymer, and to fuse the metal material in a high-density structure. Depending on what the printed part or component is to be used for and which material it was printed with, an additional heat treatment process can be performed to increase part strength even further.
The total lead time to get a component printed depends on several criteria, including the size and intricacy of the part. Depending on the part or component design and required tolerances, it also can undergo post-processing. The debinding operation and heat treatment are done in batches, with several different components going through these processes together while the next components are being printed. Although the printer, debinding and furnace work in an integrated loop, there is flexibility to increase the number of printers without having to duplicate either the debinding or furnace.