Product and process optimization by the use of 3D-printers in industrial production environments

March 27, 2018 Jeroen van Hal
3D printer

Many people have a traditional inkjet or laser printer in their homes, to print '2D' texts and images on paper. In an extension to this, 3D-printers already show up in our homes, to make gadgets, jewellery and other products. 3D printing is becoming increasingly popular and nowadays large online platforms are being set up where open source designs are accessible to everyone, like Pinshape.  3D-printing, also known as additive manufacturing is a novel production technique where 'real 3-dimensional' products are built layer by layer, made from scratch. This is the opposite of traditional machining operations such as drilling, milling or cutting, where pieces of material are removed to yield the product.

3D printing as ‘rapid prototyping’

3D printing today is often associated with a process called ‘rapid prototyping’ – which is used by research and development (R&D) teams to create a physical representation of a new invention (prototype) so that it can be tested and validated.

On a professional level, 3D-printing is already becoming a popular solution to manufacture products in small series, fast and custom-made. 3D-printing of polymers and metals already occurs on an advanced scale, alongside this 3D-printing of ceramics is rising. 


3D-printing at Bronkhorst

3D-printers are very useful within the production environment. This is demonstrated by their use here at Bronkhorst - for product as well as process development. It really has become a new and very accessible way of manufacturing.

We use several 3D-printers mainly for visualisation purposes - 'the rapid prototyping way' - and to print useful tooling to facilitate the production of mass flow controllers and meters. Prior to using 3D-printing, a prototype of a component had to be manufactured at an external tool shop, which took some time - and investment - before it was ready. The use of 3D-printing has allowed us to increase our productivity: it is much faster to print a component or a tool ourselves. 

Within a few hours, we can evaluate the design of a component: will it really work in the way we expected it, does it really fit? Moreover, for small quantities, no investment is required for manufacturing a mould.

In addition to its speed, 3D-printing has some convincing advantages. It is much more powerful to deal with a real component - a plastic model, with some real look & feel - than a 3D-rendered image which may look fantastic but isn't in real life. In addition, the communication between R&D, engineering and production works that much better having a component in your hand to talk about. Which are the key problems we will encounter, what can be the risks of a new design? In the R&D department, 3D-printing is mainly used to test the functionality of a design. The engineering department goes one step beyond, in making the design feasible and realisable. 

industrial 3D-printer for metal
Industrial 3D-printer for metal

Cooperation with external partners

K3D, part of Kaak Group in Terborg, acquired the first real industrial 3D-printer for metal. Since September 2016, the printer is fully operational. The MetalFab1 machine is based on selective laser melting (SLM), a 3D-printing technique where a layer of metal powder is deposited, after which a part of these powder particles is selectively melted together by means of laser heat. It is the first local step in real production of metal parts with a 3D-printer. 

Kaak approached seven companies in the region to experiment with the 3D-technique together, with the aim to turn the eastern part of the Netherlands into a 'print valley'. Each week, Bronkhorst has access to the printer for several hours. Bronkhorst is constantly looking for possibilities to improve the production process of flow meters, e .g. whether it’s possible to integrate more functions in the modules without interfering with the modular design. Moreover, local educational institutes are invited to get access to the machine, in order for their students to become acquainted with this technology.

Mass flow controllers for 3D-printers

Besides the fact that we use 3D-printing for our own product and process development, it also goes the other way around: mass flow controllers are used inside 3D-printers for metals. In selective laser melting, it is essential to have an inert gas atmosphere around the to-be-melted metal powder particles inside the 3D-printer, to prevent the metal from oxidation during the laser melting with oxygen from the surrounding air. To that end, an inert shielding gas has to be applied: argon gas for steel and titanium, and nitrogen gas for aluminium. Bronkhorst helps 3D-printer manufacturers with a system that generates and controls the flows of these inert shielding gases. 

3D-printing is a way of additive manufacturing, a novel production technique essential for Bronkhorst to keep up with all new trends in the market for product- as well as process development.

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