A division of a Canadian integrated energy services company that primarily works with the oil and gas, water, and automotive industries offers composite line pipe and tank products for energy producers around the world. Engineers at the division were tasked with creating an automated handling machine to load the large glass reinforcement tape pads, which weigh between 115 and 230 lb. The goal was to reduce changeover time and increase plant throughput.
The design would have the ‘pad handling’ machine sit over tape pad pay-off stations on the pipe reinforcement machine. Four end effectors would pick up reinforcement tape pads and place them on controlled pay-off hubs across four quadrants.
The drawback was the cost of making the custom parts for the machine. “These one-off parts usually have a three- to six-week turnaround time,” said Phil Minors, Senior Mechanical Designer for the Canadian company. Not having the machine up and running was going to cost roughly $1.6 million CAD over the course of a year. The company faced a lose-lose situation — either they pay a lot of money to build the machine, or lose revenue each month the machine wasn’t operational.
Minors and his team heard about Markforged and realized that they could print several of their custom aluminum parts on a Markforged 3D printer. He put the business case together, showing the potential savings, and purchased a Markforged Mark Two — a desktop 3D printer capable of printing in continuous fiber.
The team started printing parts for the machine and found they could do so at a reduced cost. There are now 53 unique printed parts on the pad handling machine, including fuse covers, end effector laser sensor mounts, mechanism covers, bump stops, motor mounts, and more. Additionally, the team replaced machine parts that broke during testing or that needed tweaking with Markforged printed parts that they can print overnight, put back on the machine, and test the next morning. These replacement parts are integral to keeping machine development on time.
The engineers use the Mark Two’s ability to embed continuous fibers to ensure extra strength in certain parts. Minors estimates that around 50% of the printed parts have been reinforced with Kevlar, HSHT fiberglass, or carbon fiber. “For shock-loaded parts, we chose Kevlar or HSHT fiberglass, and for parts we wanted to be more rigid, we chose carbon fiber,” says Minors. The design team saved $27,000 CAD by replacing aluminum and sheet metal parts with 3D printed parts on the pad-handling machine alone.
“People are realizing that you can prototype faster and iterate faster,” says Allan Cramer, Electrical Engineer at the Canadian company. At first, other employees were concerned about the amount of time it would take to operate the printer, but Minors had no apprehension about it.
“It takes me less time to set up the print than it would take me to create a purchase order to get the part from a machine shop,” says Minors. Initially, only three engineers and designers from the ‘Manufacturing Technology Group’ (MTG) were using the printer, but now it’s used across MTG and by the product engineering team who use if for prototype parts and test fixtures.