Amazing Innovation: How technology is changing the manufacturing landscape

May 13, 2016 | Amazing Innovation: How technology is changing the manufacturing landscape Iowa Association of Business and Industry,

Advances in technology are giving Iowa’s manufacturing engineers the ability to design and make new products never before possible or, in some cases, even imagined.

Iowa manufacturers now have access to two three-dimensional printers — an updated one will arrive on the university of Northern Iowa campus this summer — that have changed their ability to produce parts in new ways and at a quicker rate. The newest one, a 3-D metal printer at Iowa State University’s Center for Industrial Research and Service (CIRAS), arrived last October.

Engineering experts said metal additive manufacturing will change the way companies make and design products and parts. They will no longer be constrained by the geometric limits imposed by traditional production processes. Manufacturers will be able to produce parts and products with less material and in days instead of weeks or months.

“It allows you to redefine how you design and develop projects,” said Mike O’Donnell, who leads the manufacturing extension program at CIRAS. “Traditional design rules go out the window. With a metal printer you can do very fancy and neat things with it that you wouldn’t historically be able to do.”


The possibilities for product and tool design are infinite with 3-D metal printing. Previously, a company’s product was welded, screwed or bolted together if it was more than one piece. Companies can now either “print” the product or produce a mold to cast the product in one piece.

Manufacturers can choose from thousands of powdered metals similar to the consistency of baby powder. The powder is spread out in CIRAS’ printer, and a laser then melts layer upon layer of the powder until it forms the tool or product piece. It is formed with thousands of layers of melted metal powder. There are no molds or casting needed for CIRAS’ printing process. The build space is limited to 10 inches by 10 inches by 12 inches, but products or molds could be printed piece by piece and then put together.

With CIRAS’ printer, there’s more flexibility in the creation of injection molds, O’Donnell said. If a manufacturer has a certain feature they need to change for a product based on consumer preference, an insert could be printed for the mold that would allow part of it to be replaced. This means a feature, the texture or even the shape could be modified without having to completely redesign the product or completely change the mold.

“It opens up a new set of rules in terms of what you can do that we’ve really never been able to do before,” O’Donnell said.

In fall 2013, UNI’s Metal Casting Center installed the largest 3-D printer in North America that produces sand casting molds and containers into which liquid metal is poured. It can produce anything from engine cores to axle housings.

The ability to produce casts this quickly can speed up the research and prototype development process by months or even years, according to UNI.

UNI has assisted John Deere with new tractor designs, the aerospace industry and about 75 other companies in the state, said Jerry Thiel, director of UNI’s Metal Casting Center. The printer helps companies reduce costs by increasing the availability of, and shortening the wait for, prototypes and quickly creating low-quantity-run parts.

“There’s an economic advantage in looking at additive manufacturing,” Thiel said. “It’s a tool companies can use to produce parts quickly.”

UNI’s printer upgrade this summer will increase printing speed by 10 times. Thiel said this will now move 3-D
printing to more production rather than just prototypes or low runs.

Three-dimensional printing also helps companies replace parts for older equipment in cases where the parts may no longer be produced, said Wes James, director of operations for Cedar Valley TechWorks, the facility in which UNI’s 3-D printer is located. Those pieces can be made in smaller quantities without the expense of a large run.


Pella Corp. has worked with CIRAS to learn how it could use metal additives to maintain the equipment the company uses to build its windows and doors, said Kurtis Webb, Pella’s production manager for its manufacturing and engineering services plant.

Pella’s interest is in how metals could be used for tooling, fixtures, product development and future innovation, he said.

“The work that CIRAS is doing to bring the technology to Iowa and central Iowa is still understated about how important this is going to be for Iowa manufacturing, both for keeping it strong and moving us for- ward to be competitive with everyone else in the world,” Webb said. “We, collectively as Iowa manufacturers, are gaining better understanding to know how to leverage this type of manufacturing.”

Webb has a few printed pieces on his desk to help inspire the creative wheels within the brains of Pella’s designers.

“We’re just starting to hit the tip of the iceberg of getting people’s minds shifted for what is possible when you can print a part and under- standing the limitations that come when printing a part,” he said.

O’Donnell said 3-D metal printing will likely only be 1 percent to 3 per- cent of the manufacturing output in the next decade — a small sector overall, but it’s the impact that will be massive.

“This is not going to replace the rest of the metal and plastic and all sorts of other technologies that are out there,” he said. “We don’t expect this to replace machine shops or welding. It’s not going to happen that quickly. It’s going to create a strategic shift in how companies use technology and to use the right technology at the right time to have a creative advantage.”

Those advantages will come in the form of beating competitors, of being able to create a prototype and have it on the market the fastest.

Many companies need molds made, and 3-D printing expedites the process. A mold can be printed overnight. It could take six to 12 weeks to have one created overseas or through traditional methods.

“If you want to cut months out of your development cycle, you can print a new mold rather than getting one made internationally,” O’Donnell said.

Officials at Rockwell Collins are intrigued by what metal printing could mean for the company in its designs and productions in the areas of aviation, aerospace and defense.

Kevin Fischer, manager of manufacturing technology pursuits for Rockwell Collins, said additive printing could be advantageous for areas in which the company works because high quantities of a part or tool are not needed, or for when replacement parts for pieces are needed but the tooling is no longer available to produce the part.

Rick Twedt, director of advanced manufacturing for Rockwell Collins, said metal printing could allow the company to save money in tooling and to test the functionality of prototypes using metal parts instead of plastics for items used to build flight controls.

Manufacturers will have to balance the benefits with the expense. CIRAS’ printer cost $900,000. UNI’s sand casting printer was $1.5 million. Thiel said it would be inappropriate to disclose the cost of UNI’s new printer.

O’Donnell said it takes a lot of parts to recoup the cost of a printer, and powdered metal is more expensive than traditional stock metal. There also is a period of testing the standardization of materials printed with a 3-D printer. Manufacturers have questions about ensuring the quality, consistency and pedigree of printed items, both from print job to print job and from printer to printer.

Tom Yeoman, owner of Yeoman & Co., said his company currently manufactures its products for farmers and outdoor use through a traditional poly injection technology that uses progressive tools for steel and aluminum.

He said there can be as many as 10 steps to form each part, but hundreds of thousands of parts are very quickly made using this process. His company has had some 3-D samples printed through other sources — they have not used CIRAS’ printer.

“They are good for demonstrations but are fragile and won’t hold up for use,” Yeoman said.

O’Donnell said metal printing, specifically using laser sintering, which is what CIRAS has, makes metal parts that are stronger when the correct materials and processes are used. With each printed piece, the part design and how it will be built need to be considered in order to create a strong part.

“Simply taking a part designed for traditional processes and then printing it isn’t always the best answer,” he said.

Webb said within the next five to 10 years there will be even more technological advances with metal additive printing that should decrease costs and make it more accessible. If those things come together, Pella and many other manufacturers would consider whether to invest in their own printers, he said.


The education process of this new technology is key to its success and accessibility to manufacturers. UNI and Iowa State work to ensure companies have strong digital models of their projects and upgraded technology in house. Projects need to be designed in three dimensions using 3-D computer-aided design before they can be printed.

Webb said the printing technology gives his company new ways to test parts. Pella can design and print a plastic additive part first and then test it using a printed metal part rather than something that was cast in metal. The company is in the process of determining the durability of printed items, including their strength characteristics and metal properties.

“We can put them into testing and see how those full-in metal parts will hold up in the design before we put it in metal casting,” he said.

However, Pella would likely continue to produce most of its high- volume parts through metal casting, because it’s cheaper than additive manufacturing.

Pella officials also want to better understand the limits of 3-D printing: Does orientation in the printer affect where support might be needed? Does it affect what shapes are possible? Will some printed parts require post-processing with conventional machinery? How will the final product hold up?

Twedt with Rockwell Collins said the company has more experience using sand-cast tooling molds such as that at UNI, as well as its own in- house plastic additive 3-D printers.

“When we start getting into the printing of the part itself, there are a lot of gaps in knowing the materials and how you build it on the machine,” he said. “You want to make darn sure you have a qualified part when you’re using it in an airplane to make a rudder or a brake or any other part.”

CIRAS employees have worked with Pella and others to uncover the answers to these questions and many more.

The 3-D printers aren’t just helping today’s businesses, they’re preparing the future workforce, James with Cedar Valley said.

As new technology for manufacturing is developed, students and employees receive the training and education they need to operate this type of technology and to plan for future needs.

“Our end result, if we’re successful, is that we create a pipeline of trained students for those jobs, and we help manufacturing and companies through- out the state with their competitiveness in a global marketplace because they have the experience and access with their tools and to try out a new technology without having to make the investment themselves,” James said.

“Even the most proficient engineers are used to using a different technology,” he continued. “The way they think about creating parts and tools and systems. Most people aren’t in the practice of seeing it from the additive perspective. Incorporating that process into your design process is a paradigm shift.”