Small to mid-size manufacturers are at a disadvantage when it comes to determining if 3D printing is a viable option for their business model.
Take Masterclock, a manufacturer of precise timing systems equipment in St. Charles, Mo., for instance. The company considered investing in 3D printing equipment to bolster its manufacturing process. “We wanted to explore the potential of additive manufacturing,” says John Clark, president and CEO of the company. “But we didn’t have access to the resources required to do that.”
With 25 employees, the company designs and assembles printed circuit boards and then mounts those in various types of cases for environments and customers ranging from schools to airplanes. “We have been serving both markets with very high-quality metal cases and wanted to explore the potential of using 3D printing to reduce costs for markets that don’t need truly mission-critical timing,” he says.
Clark says it was when he attended the Paris Air Show several years ago that he first learned Rolls Royce had begun using 3D-printed parts in its jet engines. “The idea that the additive manufacturing process could produce parts suitable for those types of environments was striking and started us thinking about our own applications for it,” he says.
“We’ve been following various printer manufacturers since then and had been tinkering on our own with hobbyist printers in our shop but weren’t ready to commit the funds to make the jump to a higher-end printer without more understanding,” Clark explains.
The Crucial Impact of a Detailed Analysis: When to Invest in 3D Printing
Enter the Missouri University of Science and Technology. Located in the heart of the Ozarks, Rolla, Mo.-based S&T’s Innovative Additive Manufacturing Laboratory conducts research on the optimization and innovation of tool-free processes such as 3D printing and stretchable, wearable electronics that can be manufactured more readily than through the limits of mass production.
Clark says he learned about the university’s analysis capabilities through the outreach of Dr. Richard Billo, director of the Kummer Center for Advanced Manufacturing at Missouri S&T, during an event this past February that was organized by the University of Missouri Extension Office. The center facilitates advanced processes, materials, sensors and integrative workforce development techniques to enable next-generation manufacturing, spurring regional and national economic development.
When Clark and Billo met, the digital printing market was exploding with possibilities, and Clark (like many manufacturers) was trying to determine if 3D printing was a cost-effective alternative to purchasing parts from suppliers.
Drawing on matching funds from an Economic Development Administration (EDA) grant, the analysis that the Center for Advanced Manufacturing at S&T conducted on behalf of Masterclock was funded in part by the UM System Manufacturer Partnership.
Billo led the analysis, which considered current market conditions, and found that the cost of equipment required to 3D print the casements that house the display clocks Masterclock manufactures outweighs the potential savings. It is not the right time for this investment.
Clark says, however, that the analysis did show him that many forms of 3D printing have reached the point that there’s parity or better—on a per-part basis—with fabricated parts, which is a potentially major leap forward for a company the size of Masterclock.
“We learned that the adoption of 3D printing at the production level did not yet make sense for Masterclock,” Clark says. “In the background, we have taken what we have learned and have deployed our own newly printed in-house parts to support our factory operations and prototype requirements using less expensive and capable printers.” He adds that building assembly jigs, printing custom holders for labels for inventory, and confirming form/fit/function of suggested designs has become part of Masterclock’s normal routine because of the study.
Although the analysis determined that now is not the time for Masterclock to make the move into 3D print production, all is not lost. “Masterclock not only learned about the return on investment, but more importantly, the project eliminated any surprises in the technology issues that needed to be addressed to produce a quality casement,” Billo says. “For example, they learned that separate equipment was needed, and a process perfected to ‘smooth’ the part after it was printed, so that the surface finish was of high quality. Previously, they were not even aware that surface finish was an issue or that there was smoothing technology available to address surface finish issues.”
Clark says the company has taken the scope realized from the study and sparked new uses for additive manufacturing throughout its operation. “We also are keen to follow the progress of companies like Stratasys and various processes like vapor smoothing as we definitely expect this technology to become more mature, efficient and eventually ready for deployment on our production line,” he says.
“Our longer-term goal is to identify how we can use 3D printing to go after those niche projects where some system needs a smaller quantity of devices with very custom enclosures. Our existing capabilities around implementing circuitry and coding would be dramatically expanded and expedited to market with more control over how we can form our products into precise environmental fits,” Clark adds.
Missouri Protoplex to Break Ground This Fall
“We are glad to see folks like Dr. Billo and this team focusing on delivering real value to companies like us through this type of analysis,” Clark says.
Billo says the work his team did with Masterclock is an example of S&T’s commitment to collaborating with manufacturers across Missouri to help them be more innovative and competitive in the global marketplace. And that commitment is about to become a lot more tangible.
This October, S&T will break ground for the Missouri Protoplex, an advanced manufacturing research and development facility that will anchor the university’s planned manufacturing technology and innovation campus.
In addition to providing space for equipment that will be available to manufacturers like Masterclock, as well as S&T students and researchers, the facility will serve as a headquarters of sorts for the network Billo and others are building through partnerships with the Missouri Association of Manufacturers (MAM), the Society of Manufacturing Engineers (SME), and community colleges and tech schools across the state.
“The Missouri Protoplex is a $100 million project funded by the State of Missouri together with a gift from the Kummer Foundation,” Billo says. “This 117,000-square-foot, high-bay manufacturing facility has the dual missions of assuring our domestic base of manufacturing is retained and grows in Missouri and the U.S., and ensuring a highly qualified, domestic workforce is available to produce U.S. product innovations,” he says.
The Protoplex works closely with small, mid-size and large U.S. manufacturing companies to make use of new advanced manufacturing technologies to develop new products and processes required to maintain international competitiveness, according to Billo.
“Any U.S. manufacturing company…[is] invited and encouraged to work with the Missouri Protoplex, as well as federal agencies such as the DOD and DOE,” Billo says. “We also work with several agencies to help subsidize companies to be able to afford to work with Protoplex.”
In addition to offering an opportunity for manufacturers to learn about new methods and technologies, Billo says the equipment housed in the Protoplex will help S&T students develop skills they’ll need when they join the workforce.
“There’s lots of apprehension around advanced manufacturing because there’s a skills shortage in the workforce,” Billo says. “Missouri S&T and the Missouri Protoplex are resources for these companies. We’re taking a collaborative approach, taking the time to understand what manufacturers really need rather than just telling them what courses we plan to offer.”