Caterpillar Tells How 3D Printing Helps Production

Published 11/06/2015

Charles Murray, Senior Technical Editor

During a case study session at the Design & Manufacturing Philadelphia, a Design News trade event, the construction and mining equipment giant showed how it saved money through 3D printing of low-volume parts, including hose clamps, gauges, chain links, and scale models of various kinds. In one case, the company saved about $160,000 by 3D printing track links for a tractor.

"What we found is that you just set the printer down and there are all kinds of jobs waiting for it," noted Jim LaHood, engineering specialist for 3D printing at Caterpillar, remarking about the demand for 3D printing and additive manufacturing technology within the company.

Most of the company’s savings involved low-volume production. In one case, engineers saved $27,000 a year on masking molds made from ABS plastic. In another, they saved 90% on low-volume bowl-type gauges for measuring engine parts. Caterpillar also used 3D printing to produce rocker arm assemblies, tool holders, and scale models of very large machine components.

"We have thousands of low-volume plastic and metal parts – clamps, knobs, clips – of which we sell only five or ten a year,” LaHood told an audience of engineers. Such parts are best-suited for 3D printing, he added.

One supplier inspired Caterpillar engineers to use 3D printing after it called for a minimum order of 100 parts, even though only five per year were needed. “So we went to a production-type FDM (fused deposition modeling) machine and we produced the whole year’s supply overnight,” LaHood said.

Success with the technology has motivated Caterpillar management to buy more printers and place them in its manufacturing facilities around the country. Branded by the company as “Nomadic,” the 3D printing machines are currently located at facilities in Kansas, Texas, Minnesota, North Carolina, and elsewhere.

LaHood said the Nomadic program not only has saved the company money, it has also served to educate. “When I walk into a facility, they listen politely and sometimes say, ‘That’s nice, but we need metal (parts),’” LaHood relayed to his audience at the trade show. “So I say, ‘Maybe you don’t. Let’s walk around and look at your tooling.’”

To augment the educational process, Caterpillar has set up an internal web site for sharing 3D printing best practices, as well as failure stories. “It’s all about culture change,” LaHood said, “showing people what they can do now that they couldn’t do before.”

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