3D printing – aka additive manufacturing – is the process by which material is solidified layer-on-layer to produce physical objects based on computerised models. While the idea is almost 40 years old now, it just hit its prime as a viable manufacturing technology. No longer limited to the confines of the rapid-prototyping workshop, the cost of 3D printers has come down fast, while the range of printing material continues to grow exponentially. Notably, it is now possible to print anything from human body parts through food to fine jewellery, depending on your preference as a designer.
In a production context, it is considered one of the more disruptive technologies of the Industry 4.0 era because of its potential to upset the economics of manufacturing. As prices drop and the technology becomes ubiquitous, it’s been predicted that certain products will be cheaper to manufacture at, or much closer to, the point of sale. The idea is that even though the individual unit cost may be higher, this would be offset by the saving on transport and other inventory related expenses. In the automotive industry, for example, spare parts could be printed in the repair shop as and when they are required, cutting the need for inventory and supply chain management. The raw materials would, of course, have to be held on the premises, so some degree of stock holding will still exist.
Among the automation companies, Metso is one of the first movers in the field. For years, Metso Flow Control has been exploring the possibilities of the technology for manufacturing purposes. So far, this has been limited to research and development and the quick resupply of rarely used spare parts to customers around the globe. But that changed recently after the company received an urgent call from an end user having problems with the valves it currently used in a harsh gas treatment application. A new solution was needed, capable of faster cycle speeds and exceptionally long service intervals.
Utilising their experience with digital models and 3D printing, Metso engineers were able to produce robust new valve components for this application, custom-designed to cope with the extreme process conditions, and manufactured from materials capable of lasting the duration of the extended service intervals. This project cut to the quick of Industry 4.0 promise in an elegant combination of customer pull and technology push, which resulted in the company shipping its first ever valves fitted with printed components. To meet the radical specification, Metso used 3D printing technology to create a new, ultra-robust valve design with special emphasis placed on the sliding surfaces. For more on how they did it, see ‘First Metso valves with 3D printed parts’.
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