Two years ago, at the largest manufacturing show in North America, the world witnessed the creation of a printed vehicle. Visitors could watch it grow through a technique known as additive manufacturing, or three-dimensional (3D) printing.
In this revolutionary process, a printer layers hot plastic to produce components or whole products without the aid of molds, cutting tools, or dies. It was impressive, but there was a large elephant in the room. Only parts that could be made out of plastic were actually produced.
Two years later, at this year’s International Manufacturing Technology Show (IMTS), held in Chicago, not only were companies introducing parts printed with metals, they were quietly talking of how the arrival of a variety of metals to the plastic mix will dramatically change the current status quo.
Because of this, Windsor’s MTD companies could find themselves on the outside of an exciting new industry without a way to participate.
Visitors to the stands of new additive technology entrants heard about aerospace being one of the first to adopt 3D printing. Despite the high value of its products, production runs are not as large as those in the automotive world. Some at the show were skeptical of vehicle assembly ever moving away from milling blocks of metal into auto parts.
They may be right, but the evidence is clear. In the future there will be less and less traditional mold making.
Because of this, Windsor should prepare for the end of one of its most resilient and long lasting industries. The tools and molds it produces seem headed for a declining market.
Those who question this, often known as Luddites, should look at the Airbus Group.
This giant manufacturer of commercial aircraft has an in-house department known as APWorks. At IMTS it was showing the metal interiors of seat armrests soon to grace Airbus planes. Each was 3D printed.
To get to that point, APWorks travelled through the same rigid certification of any aerospace supplier.
What makes additive manufacturing so attractive is the elimination of the extreme waste inherent in the cutting of large blocks of metal to produce a product.
Yamazaki Mazak, a renowned Japanese maker of machine tools, showcased a high precision, intricate, thin-walled aerospace component. Using Mazak technology, it was reduced from a 321 lb block of aluminum alloy 7050-t74511 into a 34 pound part.
By comparison, additive manufacturing is relatively waste free.
At another, much smaller booth, a complete aircraft part was on display. It, too, was made without benefit of tools or dies. But, ominously, the company reported that a large aircraft manufacturer bought its 3D printers so its designers can produce molds and actual products all in house.
It was a chilly revelation because, by extension, original equipment manufacturers can do their own mold and tool creation; without Windsor.
Today’s 3D printers are made largely by young companies. But that, too, is about to change.
What was notable at IMTS was the introduction of additive with milling in one comprehensive machine able to add and subtract.
Sodick is the first mainstream company in its industry to make the move into 3D printing. Its new OPM250L Metal 3D Printer marries laser metal sintering with high speed milling. Sodick’s customers can manufacture finished 3D molds with a single machine able to operate 24 hours a day without human intervention.
The company claimed its molds are better than contemporary methods, particularly their unprecedented and intricate cooling channels which can’t be done using current mold making.
Its representatives downplayed the idea this could put mold makers out of work. Instead, they talked of how companies could increase their productivity without adding staff. It might be a way for Windsor’s MTD to stay in the game, but they would be challenged by their customers’ ability to buy the same technology.
All of this should send an ominous message to Windsor’s interim mayor.
Drew Dilkens should be pressuring the local economic development staff to get busy with an action plan to replace the region’s declining MTD industry. However, it is doubtful this will happen.
In the midst of the tsunami of change from 3D printing, Windsor’s future is cloudy at best, dark at worst.