Fluid power is a mature technology. My grandfather probably would have said that’s PC-speak for saying it’s old. As such, I’ve heard people complain about the sometimes glacial pace at which the industry moves. But at the recent NFPA Annual Conference in San Diego, Alex Chausovsky, senior principal analyst, Industrial Automation, HIS, told the industry leaders that change is coming, and fast, thanks to additive manufacturing, also referred to as 3D printing.
So what’s the big deal about additive manufacturing? Well, let’s think about manufacturing in general. Globally, there was $1.7 trillion of machinery produced in 2014—roughly the size of the Canadian economy. Machine tools alone represented $100 billion, and plastics was another $40 billion. Those two segments may be most affected by 3D printing. While additive manufacturing is not going to replace traditional manufacturing, what if it takes up 1%? 10%? Plug in the numbers and the results are staggering.
While you can see news reports of 3D printers falling through the $250 price tag—and commentators insist that every home will have one soon—the reality for manufacturing is a bit different. Industrial grade printers can reach $1 million or more when installation, maintenance and so on is included. But how will this affect fluid power specifically? Chausovsky cited several ways:
• It increases design innovation by creating new structures and shapes; engineers are able to take an idea, create a CAD model and have a part in their hands by the next day. They are then able to see exactly how it fits into the piece of equipment they are building. Imagine the applications in creating valves and manifolds, for example. The aerospace and some of the automotive racing industries are already using 3D printing to create these items. 3D printing also improves the design process by allowing for new contributions of materials.
• It speeds up time-to-market by making the idea-to-prototype cycle much shorter. Necessary adjustments to prototypes can be made quickly and new prototypes may be printed within hours or days, which truly speeds up the entire design process.
• It reduces development cost and waste by using fewer materials. Plus, it increases personalization of products for customers, without additional cost increases.
• Reverse-engineering of old, outdated parts—think of the remanufacturing market that thrives in fluid power—is possible through digital scanning. The part might be 20 years old and there was never a CAD model for it. Now, engineers can scan it, turn it into a CAD model and then 3D print it and have complete repeatability.
There are challenges, for sure. Printer and material costs, speed and size limitations, intellectual property concerns, and environmental issues need to be addressed. Not to mention that there will be required certifications in industries like medical and aerospace, which are in process. But it’s going to be fun watching fluid power companies adapt to and innovate with this hot technology in the coming years.
Filed Under: Fluid Power World Magazine Articles, News