Let's Call the Whole Thing Off. Or not?
With a hybrid machine, an operator can change between 3D printing and CNC machining as easily as changing between milling cutters. Automatic switchover between processes takes less than 30 seconds.
Photo courtesy Hybrid Manufacturing Technologies
An innovative company plays matchmaker between CNC machining and 3D Printing
Within the laws of science and nature, sometimes opposites attract. Until recently, not many would have thought the ongoing supremacy feud between CNC machining and 3D printing—like a fighting couple—could end in a manufacturing marriage.
But in a research lab in England six years ago, an unlikely duo was paired together—CNC machining and 3D printing—and has resulted in a hybrid machine that combines the best of both worlds. And the outcome of this pairing means parts that incorporate the intricate internal layering of 3D printing with the speed and precision of CNC machining.
It saves time. It saves money. And it results in the best possible part, according to Jason Jones, CEO and co-founder of Hybrid Manufacturing Technologies, which recently released a fully-commercialized, all-in-one, production machine that combines additive and CNC capabilities for part repair and new component manufacturing.
"Will hybrid parts be a thing of the future? Absolutely. I think they'll be huge and we'll look back in 20 years and think, 'Why didn't we combine these processes sooner?'" Jones said in a phone interview.
With a background in CNC machining, Jones's passion for hybrid manufacturing sprang from a passion to overcome the limitations of CNC while embracing the benefits of 3D printing, all in an easy-to-use format. Anyone who can use a CNC machine can use the new hybrid machine, Jones stressed.
Jones spent several years working with Prof. David Wimpenny with The Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC) in Coventry, England, along with other collaborators to develop a prototype hybrid machine that combines additive manufacturing with CNC by retrofitting an existing CNC machine with additive manufacturing heads so that it will perform high speed milling, 3D scanning, laser cladding, 3D inspection, deburring/polishing, and laser marking all in one machine.
The retrofitted CNC machines graduated into the development of a single, pre-production machine that was recently adopted by a German company. Hamuel Riechenbacher won first prize for product innovation with its new Hybrid HSTM 1000, unveiled as the world's first commercially available hybrid CNC machine at the recent EMO exhibition in Hannover, Germany.
The machine was the result of a collaborative effort, spearheaded by Jones's Hybrid Manufacturing Technologies, a spin-off from a collaborative, U.K.-based research and development project known as RECLAIM (REmanufacture of high value products using a Combined LAser cladding, Inspection, and Machining system.) Hybrid Manufacturing Technologies, based in the U.K. and the U.S., developed the automatic switchover between processes using patent-pending docking systems that take less than 30 seconds to change up and allow for repair or new component fabrication.
The hybrid machine changes between manufacturing processes as easily as changing between milling cutters. The result is the ability to extend the life of high-value, complex components and/or create new components in a more cost-effective and environmentally friendly way where there's less waste from a subtractive process.
"The hybrid manufacturing machine is the most flexible system for remanufacturing worn parts and consumes only a fraction of the energy, time, and cost required to manufacture new parts," said Prof. David Wimpenny, technology manager at the Manufacturing Technology Centre, in a statement.
Both CNC and additive manufacturing have their drawbacks. With additive manufacturing for metals, the surface finish is never the quality that a machined CNC part can achieve. The layering involved with 3D printing results in a relatively poor surface finish, particularly at the edges of layers, often creating a bumpy effect. And with CNC machining, there is no access to the inside of the part, so the complexity and intricacy enabled by 3D printing can never be achieved with just CNC machining.
And with 3D printing, the rate of build affects the surface finish—the slower the build, the smoother the part. But then there is time lost. A hybrid machine allows the building of an intricate part and then the CNC machining allows for a smooth, machined finish.
"By using hybrid manufacturing, what you do is you de-couple that (rate of build) equation. So you can build faster and will have a rougher surface finish. But if you can then machine it as you go or at the end, then you can smooth out the surface without compromising too much on the build speed," Jones said in a phone interview.
Jones likened the hybrid process to the building of the pyramids in Egypt. The pyramids were built with large blocks resulting in rigid steps, but were "faced" or smoothed over with softer limestone to create the perfect pyramid.
"They were stepped pyramids all the way up and then they came back and polished the faces smoothly and essentially, we're doing the same thing on a different scale and in a different way," he said. "What we're saying is 'build at the rate you want to build your part, knowing that you can smooth the surface later on.' And just smoothing the outside takes a lot less time than getting the smooth outer surfaces by building in fixed layers (with 3D printing)."
The hybrid technology can also be used to add features to existing parts, as with a panel that might need stiffeners, or with this bar stock with added fins
Photo courtesy Hybrid Manufacturing Technologies
Since a couple of years ago, Jones and his associates have run two prototypes and then built a pre-production system—the HSTM 1000—together with Hamuel. Now Hybrid Manufacturing Technologies is coming out with a production version of that machine, due in April 2014. The company offers two options. One involves retrofitting an existing CNC machine to use a series of heads with a docking system, which allows CNC machines to use 3D printing with changeover taking only 10-25 seconds.
The cost of retrofitting an existing CNC machine costs about the same as buying a new 3D printing machine for metal. The other option offered by Hybrid Technologies is to buy the new hybrid machine from Hamuel, which combines both technologies at a cost approaching $1 million. Jones expects that as demand grows, the cost will be driven down to half that amount during the next few years.
With the retrofitting option, the company will essentially add accessories—multiple 3D printing heads—into an existing CNC machine. And ease of use is key.
"The CNC operator will program it the same way he programs everything else. The controls that run the CNC machine will control the laser deposition heads as well," Jones explained. "I think we're at the forefront of the ease-of-use level. There's never been anything this easy to use in the marketplace and, particularly, there's never been a product tailored just for CNC users that does additive manufacturing."
Jones's company does have some competition from DMG MORI, an Illinois-based CNC machine company that has recently come out with the Lasertec 65 machine, which combines milling processes and additive manufacturing with one setup.
CNC machine tool builders like DMG MORI are taking notice of hybrid manufacturing as a way to capitalize on the growing popularity of 3D printing, Jones said.
"CNC machine builders are starting to see that the potential for some types of jobs to migrate over to 3D printing and hybrid manufacturing is a way for them to leverage their existing know-how in order to be able to continue serving their longstanding customers," he said.
Instead of using only one deposition head on one machine, Hybrid Manufacturing Technologies is adding up to 15 3D printing deposition heads to enable more flexibility with the width of the layering material. Just as CNC machines have different sized cutters for subtracting material, the hybrid machine has different sized heads for adding material. So instead of only adding material that is in 3mm wide paths, a user can change heads and do wider or narrower, more focused, or even use different materials or a different deposition technology.
The ease of use for this system will knock down the barriers many CNC users have seen with utilizing 3D printing.
"That's really where the disruption will be. There's a huge proportion of CNC users that have watched the additive area for a while. They've been reluctant to make an investment in a metal-based machine because most of these metal-based machines are hundreds of thousands of dollars. Whether they're powder bed or direct energy deposition, it doesn't matter—they're very expensive items. But now, if they can do 3D printing within their own CNC machine and have a machined surface finish on the product without learning an entirely new (3D printing) system—those are compelling drivers," Jones said.
Enticing the 3D Printing World
For the first time, Jones will be introducing the hybrid system to the 3D printing community at the RAPID conference in June in Detroit. Luckily, the 3D printing world is already accustomed to CNC machines due to the fact that 3D printing has been relatively small in terms of production volumes, so manufacturers have needed to be ambidextrous.
The major appeal for the 3D printing world is getting a high quality surface finish and also having the flexibility that Hybrid Manufacturing Technologies offers by utilizing multiple laser cladding heads.
Hybrid's machine allows operators to change over from additive to subtractive processes with a quick push of a button, which is what the CNC world is already used to when it comes to switching between drilling, milling, measuring, and more.
"CNC guys are used to pushing a button to change a different size milling cutter or different drill, for longer, shorter, fatter, smaller details. All of those options are available and we have created that for the additive world in the same way," Jones said. "So if you want to deposit material that has a thicker bead or a thinner one, or is taller or shorter, you can now change heads with the touch of a button and the changeover time is twenty seconds."
Hybrid's website (www.hybridmanutech.com) features a video that shows the changeover process. "It starts with a milling cutter and then changes to add material. Then it measures what's been added and then it blend machines (cuts excess material away) so that the new deposition blends it into the original part and then finally polishes it. And it does all of those steps in about six or seven minutes," Jones said.
The new hybrid machine by Hybrid Manufacturing Technologies offers 3D laser cladding, which melts metal with a laser and deposits it onto a part. The subtractive process in the hybrid machine allows for a superior surface finish because the additive material is then milled and polished in a single setup.
Photo courtesy Hybrid Manufacturing Technologies
Having worked in the CNC manufacturing realm prior to embarking on research at the 3D printing lab in England, Jones noticed a CNC machine that was not being used at the lab. At that point, the research had not developed into hybrid manufacturing and was focused on 3D printing. But Jones broke out the old CNC machine and got it running. A CNC machine in a 3D printing lab was "kind of scary" to some people there, seeing as how nearly anybody can use a 3D printer, but it takes expertise to operate a CNC machine. Even though there was a lot of nervousness about it, after Jones got the CNC machine running, people at the lab could soon see parts could be made in a complementary way between the two processes, and a new research endeavor was born.
From Old to New
When Jones and his team first tried to sell the hybrid manufacturing idea as a research concept, people said, 'You want to put a laser in my CNC machine?' Jones said.
"We had a lot of resistance to it. People were saying, 'You're crazy. You're going to destroy my CNC machine,'" Jones said.
Now people are starting to get past that, he said, adding that converting an old CNC machine that's maybe not getting much use anymore into a hybrid machine is a nice option.
"If they want to try and tinker with additive, they can do that without having a dedicated machine and without using up extra floor space. It provides an entry point at about half the cost of a typical additive machine for metal," he said.
Around 2007, the RECLAIM research project started repairing (remanufacturing) high-value engineering components, typically in sectors with highly-technical parts, for example, aerospace, defense, and power turbines. The prototype RECLAIM hybrid machine was tested on a range of industrial components, including automotive turbochargers produced by Cummins Turbo Technologies Ltd., a key-end user in the project.
Hybrid Manufacturing Technologies was established in Coventry, England, and then also recently in Dallas, Texas, to commercialize the RECLAIM system. Jones was made president of the company and put in charge of bringing the technology to the United States, where he recently relocated with his family.
At the onset, Jones and Prof. Wimpenny looked into processes where people already used both additive and subtractive technologies, yet not in a combined fashion. That led them to look into the repairing of high-value parts, such as with turbine blades in a jet engine of an airplane. Typically, this is done manually, although some of the work has migrated to CNC machining and 3D printing, independently. Removing the manual operations results in reconditioned parts at a fraction of the cost of producing a new component. The hybrid technology also allows super alloys to be clad onto specific sections of blade profiles to enhance the properties and performance of the component. Targeted cladding with additional material can reinforce parts structurally or improve the durability or chemical resistance of the parent material.
In addition to restoring worn or damaged material to a part, laser cladding can combine different materials together to enhance component performance. This permits a part made from a parent material with good structural properties (chosen for its strength, ductility, and toughness) to be surface coated with a harder, more inert material to improve its wear or corrosion resistance.
The cross-pollination of additive and subtractive processes in the hybrid machine also allows for the production of new components, which Jones said he feels is really going to be a large growth area for hybrid processing.
It can also be used to add features to existing parts, as with a panel that might need stiffeners. And a lot of times, what gets 3D printed—the complex section of a part—is only a small portion of it. So a design engineer might see himself paying above market rates to do a conventional section for three-quarters of the part and then a 3D printed feature on the end. This hybrid process can handle both at a fraction of the cost, Jones said.
Having hybrid printing technology would make a contract manufacturer desirable for the design engineer who needs to save on time and money.
"I really think in the next few years, we're going to see an uptake in (hybrid) repair, and as soon as people have hybrid tools, they will start using them for new components too," Jones said.
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