INDUSTRY SPOTLIGHT: Robotics Drive the Factory of the Future

Each generation will define how it interprets the term Robotics. I happen to fall at the tail end of Gen X and grew up with an understanding that robotics were simply for automating mundane tasks and the most exciting and truly useful applications were closer to sci-fi than reality.

These days, the reality is that some of the most practical and exciting developments in robotics have and are taking place in manufacturing. Yes, these tools of the trade are used to automate mundane tasks, reduce labor costs, and accelerate throughput. What most people do not know is what is fueling these advancements. It is technology driven, more on the virtual/software side than on the mechanical. This is the grounding of internet of things (IoT).

Manufacturing is an extremely savvy business that focuses on metrics such as Return on Investment (ROI), Return on Investment Capital (ROIC), and relationships between top and bottom line growth like no other. Mix this focus on financial metrics with mechanical intuition and then layer on some technology and now you have the factory of the future.

Follow the digital thread at Proto Labs (click to enlarge).

IoT and factory of the future are built on the concept of the digital thread (see graphic above). It is the electronic path and communication medium that is the backbone of state-of-the-art facilities. Let’s begin with an example we are all familiar with. The garage door opener is an awesome tool—when it’s raining you don’t have to get out of the car to close the door. But if your kids leave after you do, you have to ask yourself if they shut the door. Thanks to IoT, I can now get on my smartphone and verify that they closed the door at 7:10 a.m., in time to catch the school bus.

Now let’s bring this to robotics in a factory. End-of-arm tooling supporting post-secondary operations in an injection molding cell may pick a part, pass it to a laser scanner for physical inspection, and then place it into a pad printing fixture. This operation is quite simple and had been around for years, but today you have the ability to track each activity remotely, receive feedback, and collect data on performance.

Many companies that are focusing their efforts on the technology side of these improvements to their factories are in need of more custom real parts than ever before. This technology is driving the need for unique parts that can be 3D printed or machined.  Proto Labs is a leader in digital manufacturing and a crucial supplier for unique parts to support this growing business sector.

See how digital manufacturing is changing the industry in our recent Journal cover story. Read here.

INDUSTRY SPOTLIGHT: Autonomous-Car Tech Already Drives Existing Products

When most of us hear the phrase autonomous vehicles, our thoughts jump right to driverless cars. Some individuals more connected to this space will think about buses, taxis, and shuttle services. But far fewer will actually know that this driverless technology has been implemented successfully for years.

The basic concept of autonomous vehicles is to support charted courses using technology, e.g. software and sensors, to minimize or eliminate the human intervention. One of many examples is Uber’s self-driving fleet that caught a fair amount of attention a few months ago.

Tracking technology and guidance systems from John Deere have been in use by farmers for some time. Photo Courtesy: John Deere

What the general population does not realize is how long the foundation of this technology has been around and how long it has been in service. Large equipment manufacturers like John Deere have been using partial self-driving and/or guidance systems for some time. The operator is able to plot a course for the tracker to follow. For example, farmers have the ability to map out their route to pick a corn field, which could help reduce losses in missed crops and inefficient driver choices.

Another space where similar technology is currently being used is in marine applications, trolling motors for fishing boats.  Minn Kota’s i-pilot is programmable for following a charted route, chasing contours and structure of a lake, holding a single location regardless of factors like wind or current and the ability to retrace is steps. It even contains settings like shallow or deep water warnings—this sounds very similar to lane detection in a car.

The basics for autonomous vehicles are all around us, and well adopted. It is very safe to say product development across industries will have many opportunities to benefit from the tech movement heavily funded by the auto industry. The winners will be defined by who can creatively use this expanding technology packaged in a solution the consumer base desires.  Putting these new products in customer’s hands first will be a key to successful product launches.

INDUSTRY SPOTLIGHT: 3D Printing for Production Parts Gains Credibility

Why are some engineers so hesitant to use 3D printing for more than just development?

Engineers are hardwired and trained to make calculated decisions based on facts. Traditional manufacturing processes such as casting and molding have been around a very, very long time—since the Bronze Age—and time has perfected these processes and brought them to what they are today. Both industry experts and novices alike can benefit from hundreds of years of this process evolution. 3D printing processes are relatively new, especially when compared to casting or injection molding.

Motor mounts are among a growing list of automotive parts that are now manufactured using commercial-grade 3D printing.

Modern, commercial-grade printing equipment and processes are capable of predictable results that will ease the mind of the most skeptical engineer. DMLS (direct metal laser sintering) can produce repeatable results for parts that can be manufactured in no other known method. Proto Labs’ 3DP facility is not only ISO 9001:2008, but also AS 9100. This is the supplemental requirement established by the aerospace industry to satisfy DOD, NASA, and FAA quality requirements. This certification should give any engineer a sense of security.

Understanding some basic quality parameters around the processes can help to lay a foundation of credibility. For example, limits are set to the number of times base material can be used, or only virgin powder could be specified. This is no different than controlling the amount of allowable regrind into a plastic injection-molded part.

Rolls-Royce is a notable automaker now using commercial-grade 3D printing for some production parts.

Testing parts to confirm material properties are extremely common in DMLS. Building a standard tensile bar with each build is a great way to confirm batches of production are producing the desired results. This way the first batch can have destructive testing on the tensile bar and parts to confirm the material and process are producing parts with the specified properties. The future batches can test the tensile bar for confirmation the predictable results were achieved.

The aerospace industry has been embracing advanced manufacturing methods for some time now and the automotive industry has also been making great strides in this area. For example, recent articles have been published around the Rolls-Royce Phantom’s printed parts and BMW’s leading spot in adopting printing technologies.

INDUSTRY SPOTLIGHT: Commercial 3D Printing for Production Parts

Technology in the 3D printing space is advancing at the speed of light—everything from support structure software to material options and properties to ever improving processes. Some simply take these advancements as small steps in the overall progress of 3D printing, but these improvements are significant attributes that add value across industries and applications. 

Nylon handheld device 3D printed with SLS.

Medical and Health Care Development
Industries are adopting this technology for varying applications at very different paces. The health care industry has embraced nearly all forms of printing, but has particularly grasped onto direct metal laser sintering (DMLS). As we discussed last month, DMLS has a solid advantage over other 3D printing processes since it produces functional, production-quality parts from metal powder.  When plastics are concerned, selective laser sintering (SLS) is another additive manufacturing process with production in mind.

Product developers, designers and engineers in the medical and health care industries use many different types of 3D printing technologies, but why?

  • concept modeling and prototyping during early phases of product and device development
  • iterating design often to get parts in hand fast
  • reducing financial and design risks
  • building high-quality assemblies for end users to evaluate and influence human factor designs

3D-Printed Parts Help Shape Future of Health Care

Direct metal laser sintering (DMLS) is an industrial 3D printing process that creates intricate, high-quality, fully dense metal parts. Materials that are regularly seen in medical and health care devices — like stainless steel 17-4PH and 316L as well as titanium Ti 6-4 — are available through DMLS.

Small medical components built with DMLS.

This additive manufacturing process has a unique advantage over many other 3D printing processes since it produces functional, end-use metal parts. And it has advantages over traditional machining processes since surgical device development often involves very small, highly detailed components that may be impossible to manufacture by traditional means.

This includes, but not limited to, combining multiple extremely small and detailed parts into one part, which reduces the excess bulk required for assembly. A single complex part will often produce better results than an assembly of simpler components that need to work together.

Imagine the end of an arm gripper for a robotic device that stiches up a patient. These components may be smaller than 0.250 inches but are still required to possess the strength and precision required to tie knots for sutures.

Material selection and manufacturability aside, the health care industry continually strives to improve the patient experience. Keeping each procedure as minimally invasive as possible is a key element with this approach. Using DMLS technology lets surgeons minimize incisions, which, in turn, accelerates patient recovery. This not only improves the patient experience, it reduces the cost to hospitals and insurance companies.

And one of the most important attributes of DMLS? Metal parts can be prototyped within days so you can develop devices much faster and get to submissions, trials and production much quicker.

DMLS is enabling the next generation of medical devices. Don’t miss out.

LEARN MORE ABOUT DESIGNING FOR DMLS.