The 3-D advantage

November 29th, 2013

News Coverage:

The 3-D advantage

New technology helps Decatur pattern shop save time, money

Posted: Friday, November 29, 2013 12:00 am | Updated: 7:40 am, Fri Nov 29, 2013.

By Joel Elliott

A sand printing technology that dramatically reduces the time necessary to create sand molds and is relatively new to the United States has arrived at Hoosier Pattern Inc. in Decatur.

Until now, most of the independent pattern-shop owners using Germany-based ExOne’s S-MAX three-dimensional sand printer were Europeans. Hoosier Pattern is the first independent pattern shop in the United States to acquire the machine. Its value lies in the fact that it can manufacture sand molds and cores without needing to make a pattern or series of patterns.

“If you can imagine your inkjet printer it would operate very similar to that, only it’s printing layers of sand,” Hoosier Pattern owner Keith Gerber said. “Whatever it sees on your model, it prints, layer by layer, in the sand, so we are able to print cores or molds in … let’s say a week versus four weeks or more depending on the complexity of the part.”

Gerber purchased the machine for $1.5 million, spending an additional $200,000 to install it along with an overhead crane for its operation.

The machine operates by following a digital design, spreading foundry sand in extremely thin layers and then jetting binder, a resin, across the layers of sand to replicate the digital design. Once the printing process is completed, an industrial vacuum system sucks out the loose sand.

The S-MAX can process several different types of materials, including sand, glass and ceramics, and primarily will make parts for automotive, aerospace and industrial production. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology developed jet-binding technology in the 1990s, and over the years ExOne and others have worked to refine it.

The company that builds S-MAX, ExOne, has installed 72 other such machines, mostly in Europe, according to Harry Danford, ExOne’s director of sales for the Americas. The company generated about 73 percent of its revenue outside of the United States in 2012, Thomson Reuters reported, but Danford said he expects the sale to Hoosier Pattern to be the first of many in North and South America. The University of Northern Iowa purchased one shortly after Hoosier Pattern did, and Danford is lining up more sales.

“I’m in Mexico right now, giving presentations, and they saw that they could compress their process from eight months to one month” using the S-MAX 3-D printer, Danford said in November. “So (expanding into the Americas market), that’s our goal.”

Danford said that of the 73 machines ExOne has sold globally, only 30 are as advanced as the S-MAX at Hoosier Pattern.

ExOne’s mission since 2008 has focused on bringing “3D printing to the world of the shop floor, industrial production,” CEO David Burns told 3D Printing Industry magazine. ExOne’s website said benefits of using this type of technology include:

• For high-volume casting requirements, molds for matchplates may be generated. Since the tooling data is in digital form, the aluminum matchplates may be discarded after the production run, thus eliminating the need for pattern storage.

• Die casting material properties can be emulated by the strategic placement of chills.

• Production of the sand molds and cores is driven directly from the computer-aided design data, removing the need for producing a pattern as an intermediate step.

• S-MAX can produce elaborate, thin-walled, delicate or lacy cores that previous technologies could not.

ExOne is not the only company selling 3-D printers of such large scale, and possibly not the only one selling them in the United States, according to Rachel Park, editor-in-chief of 3D Printing Industry, a trade magazine.

“They’re not the only ones scaling up,” she wrote in an email. “There were a lot of launches at Euromold last year,” referring to the annual world fair for mold-making and tooling, design and application development.

New areas of use for 3-D printing continually emerge, and demand is growing, Burns told 3D Printing Industry magazine:

Three-dimensional printing technology “is transformational, and it is really difficult to forecast the trajectory of transformational technologies,” he said. “I do believe that the addressable markets for 3D printing are in the many billions of dollars, with more markets opening every day, as new materials (and) machines become available. So, I see explosive growth for 3D printing generally around the world.”

Three area pattern makers – Gerber, Dan Cade and John Hale – started Hoosier Pattern in 1997, and Gerber now is the sole owner. It operates from a 40,000-square-foot facility in Decatur. Its more than 30 workers make patterns using 14 vertical computer-numerical-control machine centers, two horizontal CNC machine centers, two CNC lathes, two electric discharge machines and 3-D laser facilities. The shop produces patterns for a wide variety of automotive and consumer products, including marine products, submersible pumps, fire-hose apparatus and more, Gerber said.

“We can do from prototype equipment up to production equipment, serving the founding industry in the Midwest,” Gerber said.

The S-MAX 3-D printer greatly expands the shop’s capabilities, and can help “anybody who has a niche in the market and wants the cutting edge and to get out in front of someone else,” Gerber said.

“It’s really good for the prototype market to make castings. And the cool thing is, now your tooling is on a flash drive.”

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