Eaton’s Vehicle Group reduced cost and development time using its 3D metal printing capabilities to produce this oil fill nozzle. (Photo: Business Wire)

SOUTHFIELD, Mich.—Power management company Eaton reported that 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 company’s Kings Mountain, North Carolina, facility, and a global deployment of 3D polymer printing technology is slated to be completed by the first quarter of 2021, Eaton said in a release.

Eaton is using the 3D printers to create high-quality fixtures, safety devices, automation grippers for assembly and handling, and maintenance components that need to be replaced.  Prototype development is following the same strategy to support faster product development trials and improve efficiency, the company said.

To speed up the design process, the company is using scanners to create 3D models of existing components, which can then be reverse engineered. The process allows Eaton to better leverage 3D printing capabilities, such as by changing component design to use less material, adding different topography elements, or consolidating multiple components into a single part.

Eaton’s Vehicle Group has been realizing further operational improvements, including lead-time reduction and cost saving, as more 3D printers are deployed across the globe. 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 said.

The process to print metal parts and components is similar to extrusion. It begins with powdered metal that is stored in a rod and held together by wax and a polymer binder. 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 company said.

The total lead time for a component to be printed depends on several criteria, including the size and intricacy of the part. Post-processing may also be required, depending on the part design and tolerances.  The debinding operation and heat treatment are done in batches: Several different components are processed in the same batch while the next components are being printed. Although the printer, debinding, and furnace work in an integrated loop, Eaton has the flexibility to increase the number of printers without having to duplicate the debinding or the furnace, according to the company.

Going forward, Eaton’s Vehicle Group will use its 3D printing capabilities to further reduce production time and drive efficiency, the company said.

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