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3D metal printing begins to take shape

Building on its growing experience in the 3D printing of metals, Konecranes’ R&D department continues to conduct research and spread knowledge on the technology within the company. The relatively new manufacturing method offers interesting possibilities in customized parts and next-generation products.

3D printing, also called additive manufacturing, has been a topic of interest in technology circles, with some observers predicting that the process will usher in the next industrial revolution. In its early years, attention-grabbing demos presented what was technically possible with the new method. More concrete production applications soon followed.

An example of a real-life application is ultra-light shapes that are already in use in the aircraft industry. With 3D printing, material is only added exactly where it is needed, making it possible to produce shapes that are both strong and light. This means that producing even costly aircraft components using the method could be feasible as their light weight would result in fuel savings, which would help justify production costs. The situation is different in manufacturing lifting equipment.

Even so, experiments with 3D printing –  more recently, with metals – have been taking place at Konecranes to assess the opportunities and constraints that the technology presents, and to eventually uncover smart applications and business models.

Experiments with 3D printing –  more recently, with metals – have been taking place at Konecranes to assess the opportunities and constraints that the technology presents, and to eventually uncover smart applications and business models.

“In R&D, the advantage is two-fold. First, 3D printing gives wings to the imagination, because it enables experimentation with physical shapes and structures that have simply not been possible before. Second, you get from idea to actual prototype much faster, and can thus iterate with great freedom,” says Ari Koskinen, Quality Engineer at Konecranes. 

“Regarding 3D printing with metals, we’re in the process of sharing knowledge among our colleagues. This will help us understand it further and determine which issues the method could eventually solve,” Koskinen says.

“As with other production methods, the key is to gain a proper understanding of it and take advantage of it where it excels.”

Prototyping with 3D Printing

3D printing of plastic has already been in active use by Konecranes’ Research & Development team, particularly in prototyping. However, metal 3D prints cannot be used for prototypes – except for testing form and function – because the strength properties of metal prints do not equal those of the castings being used in serial production.

“We invest in the reliability and safety of our products, and we will not take risks with regard to component durability. We could only prototype with metals if the final piece was also meant to be made by printing metal. Conversely, 3D printing is the only way to prototype parts that would eventually be manufactured using the same method,” Koskinen explains.

As for using 3D printing for large scale manufacturing, it is, broadly speaking, not a practicable option at present – and it may never be. This is mainly due to cost, as certain features create excess outlay. “We have investigated the cost structure and are gaining an understanding on which features raise costs. This will help us overcome the expense factor.”

For Konecranes, what is truly interesting is the potential for true next-generation products.

For Konecranes, what is truly interesting is the potential for true next-generation products. “New shapes allow product designers to optimize different things, be it lightness, toughness, price or weather durability,” Koskinen says.

Digital-physical combination creates value

Koskinen sees the role of 3D data becoming more important as it increases the opportunity for warehousing to be done digitally, making it possible for certain spare parts and other components to be stored as software models and printed out on demand.

“Studying the possible advantages of this relatively new manufacturing method is in line with Konecranes’ aim to be the leading technology company. Frankly, we don’t know where all this is going to lead yet, but we’re convinced that it’s a must for us to be at the forefront and experiment,” he asserts.

“Right now, 3D printing only makes sense for relatively small and complex parts. However, costs are going down. It will be possible to manufacture even larger metallic parts using 3D printing in the near future. We are prepared for that,” says Koskinen.

Key advantages

  • Allows experimentation with physical shapes and structures that were not previously possible
  • Shortens the timeline from idea to prototype 
  • Allows warehousing to be done digitally, as models can be printed on demand

 

Ari Koskinen is a Quality Engineer working in Service Parts Quality at Konecranes. In addition to participating in quality development programs, Koskinen works with the product management team to solve quality issues in the global spare parts business.

 

Photo: Konecranes
Text: Patricia Ongpin Steffa