No matter what industry you’re involved with, the 3D Printer is going to change the way you look at building and manufacturing stuff, whether it’s prototyping for new product development or quickly building an addition onto your warehouse or manufacturing plant.
Although 3D printing has been around for more than 30 years, (invented by Chuck Hull), it’s only in recent years that it’s gained the attention of the media and manufacturers. The seemingly overnight success is garnered not only by stunts like the Texas plastic gun, but because these printers now have the ability to print different materials like metals and cement. The days of printing just prototypes using only plastic filament are over—and so, too, the stigma of 3D products being weak.
Subtractive Versus Additive Manufacturing
Most everyone reading this article is familiar with CNC machining, or subtractive manufacturing, which has been around for decades. 3D printing, or additive manufacturing as some prefer to call it, is the opposite of that process. CNC machining and 3D printing do have similarities, as they both can use CAD software, and they both manufacture products and prototypes. But 3D printing has the added benefit of soon being more affordable and requiring less training, especially with the newer software that’s being created for the technology.
Another plus for the 3D printer is that it can print an intricate part as one single unit. That same intricate part done on a CNC machine would have to be machined in sections and assembled. And with the CNC process you have lots of waste, whereas with 3D printing there is no waste.
Like previous disruptive innovations, (e.g., mass production of the automobile, jet engines, Internet), 3D Printing has not been without its share of problems. Items produced were only made of plastic; they were fragile; the printers were slow, and they were expensive for what they could do.
Today, moderately priced printers can now accurately print using multiple soft materials including various polymers. The more expensive models can print high-quality products and prototypes using various metals.
It’s no wonder that 3D printing is being called a disruptive innovation, because it’s going to affect every industry going forward in the next five to 10 years. In fact, the technology is already making an impact within the scale industry. When asked about it, Jonathan Sabo, vice president of marketing at Cardinal Scale Manufacturing Co. said, “Yes, we have a 3D printer. It’s a MakerBot Replicator, and our mechanical engineers use it to make prototype parts as representations to convey what they are designing and for them to see how the parts will fit together. The 3D printer allows them to quickly and easily physically generate the concepts they’re working on before we would eventually make a steel, aluminum or plastic part later in the machine shop.”
This innovation is also making headway into the Food Processing Industry as seen by Oreo’s recent announcement that it’s developing 3D vending machines where you can design your own cookie. These are just two examples of two industries that Industrial Weigh & Measure represents. There also have been dramatic changes in other fields such as medicine, where 3D printing is being used to fabricate such things as bones, implants and skin. I’m sure that there are many others that the media will soon be reporting on.
Buy Into 3D Printing
Today’s price for a 3D printer that’s suitable for industry use ranges from $2,900 for desktop models used for prototypes and plastic parts to $250,000 and up for printers that will print metal parts and finished products. The price for these industry-grade machines may be high now but will soon come down as manufacturers like GE (who is currently developing 3D-printed turbines for their jet engines), Boeing, Rolls Royce, Siemens and others get onboard. The money spent on developing these 3D machines will ultimately make them faster and more appealing to small and mid-sized manufacturers.
Get Ready for 3D Printing
In the near term, you’ll see scale manufacturers adopting this technology to manufacture replacement parts for older scales. Either because the part is no longer available or it’s hard to acquire in a timely manner. The technology will allow you to upload a file to CAD and print the finished part in a few hours or to do a three-dimensional scan of the broken part and/or its sister to output. The printers will also be used to fabricate one-of-a-kind parts or plastic housing for unique custom scale electronics.
For those who are in the food processing industry, 3D printers are already being used to print chocolate confectionary. And pizza printing is soon to become common place. Jigs for manufacturing will be designed and printed, as well as concrete safety walls or platforms for machinery.
Giant 3D Printers – Contour Crafting
Imagine doing all the foundation work for a truck scale in a mere 16 hours and saving thousands of dollars; pouring cement without forms and doing the whole job with only a few construction workers. Is this scenario far-fetched? Not at all—within 10 years this hypothetical story could be a reality. And not only truck scale platforms, but silos, scale houses and complete building structures with even the holes for piping and duct work manufactured (printed) right into the walls. In the future, 3D printers will be the workhorse of the construction industry.
Before you dismiss the above scenario as fiction, consider this, it’s being done right now at the University of Southern California. Since 2008, Professor Behrokh Khoshnevis has been developing the technology to build custom homes using 3D printing ‘scaled up’. He calls the new technology Contour Crafting, and has built a full-sized robotic type 3D printer right on the campus, where currently they’re printing full-scale cement walls (10,000 psi) and developing the technology.
Khoshnevis has a real desire to help those around the world who are homeless and contour crafting was born out of that need. Initially, the technology will be used to give disaster relief to people who have been displaced from their homes due to earthquakes, tornados, tsunamis, fire and war. But soon after that, you can expect contour crafting to go mainstream, and there are many applications where this technology will be viable.
Let’s go back to our example of the concrete pad or below ground pit for a truck scale and see how a ‘scaled up’ version of a 3D printer would work in that application. How much labor would it take, and how much money could be saved when using contour crafting?
Truck scales are pre-manufactured inside a plant, and then shipped out to be assembled onsite. They fit together in sections that set on a concrete foundation. Before a scale can be installed there’s a lot of preparation work that has to be completed, including excavation, drainage and concrete. The concrete work has to be precise in order for the truck scale to fit right and level. And if your truck scale is a platform, then you have the approach ramps, which have to be poured also, which means contractors, have to follow specific guidelines for length and angle. Your normal driveway cement contractor will not be your best bet. In fact, it will be a gamble if you use contractors who are not experienced in pouring concrete for truck scale installations.
What if everything except the excavation was automated by contour crafting? In effect, this supersized 3D printer with robotic capabilities will be able to precisely build the pad or pit in preparation for the truck scale. And not only the pad or pit but the scale house, too.How much time and money could be saved? It would be in the tens of thousands of dollars per installation.
I contacted Matt Goddard, Vice President of United Scale (Webb City, MO) to ask him about the length of time it takes to prepare a foundation for a truck scale installation. It just so happened that I caught him as they were getting ready to unload a brand new Cardinal truck scale for installation. Matt said, “On the below ground type pit scale it can take anywhere from two to four weeks. Depending on weather—that’s always a factor. But with good weather and a good crew it takes 10 to 14 days to complete the excavation and concrete work.”
After I shared with him a little bit about contour crafting and how it could affect the way they install truck scales in the future, he said, “That would be great! Have the scale setting there onsite and build the foundation in one day, the next day you’re putting the scale in it, and the third day you’re pouring the top on. You’re on the scale in ten days rather than 30-45 start to finish. Yeah, I would say that would be a great benefit.”
We didn’t discuss building a scale house, which can take months to build unless it’s a pre-fabricated building. But if a scale dealer had the robotic capabilities that 3D contour crafting affords, you have an opportunity to build a scale house or any other building for the client.
The Future is Now The strides made by 3D printing in the last few years have been breathtaking. Every discipline has been affected. In the last two decades, it has gone from a niche manufacturing process to nearly a $3-billion industry. Like so many emerging technologies, 3D printing has found a toehold in the weighing industry.
The earlier great transitions in our industry—self-balancing scales, compound levers, ratio beam, electro-mechanical, load cells—were fulcrums in time when the very basis of weight gathering was transformed. Now we can add 3D printing to this list.