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How 3D Printing is Empowering Creative Manufacturing at UMC

As 3D printing technology evolves and we become more familiar with its potential, our vision for additive manufacturing expands to one we could never have imagined only a few years back.  When you look at using 3D printing in combination with technology such as the internet of things (IoT), machine learning, and automation, the future becomes even more exciting.

While we’ve only just scratched the surface when it comes to reaching the full power of additive technology, we’ve made some exciting strides that continue to build momentum and touch off inspiration for the role 3D printing could play in precision manufacturing. 

Increasing Investments in 3D Printing Technology

UMC embraced 3D printing early on when we purchased our first printer, the Stratasys Fortus 250mc, in 2014. Right away, we discovered a host of opportunities to use additive manufacturing to enhance nearly every aspect of our design, prototyping, and machining processes.

In 2019, we installed the Studio System from Desktop Metal, allowing our engineers to be early adopters and experiment with metal printing of custom fixtures and jigs on-demand.

Most recently, we added the Stratasys 450mc to our machining floor, giving us even more 3D printing capacity while also increasing the speed, range of materials we can print with, and the size of output we produce. 

Putting the technology on the floor is just one part of leading the way with additive manufacturing. Amplifying the rate at which employees think of and use 3D printing to solve problems and come up with new ideas is also an essential piece of the puzzle. As we’ve grown our 3D printing use, we’ve studied the factors that have the most significant impact on how well we’re integrating the technology to enhance our business. 

Visibility and Accessibility

Our 3D printers have a prominent and visible place on the floor and are available to everyone for any purpose that they see fit. Quality, Manufacturing, and Automation Engineers can see the printers from their desks, which have a direct sightline to the manufacturing floor. Accessing the printers is simple, with a point person who can help schedule and run jobs to get the most out of each printer.  

Hands-On Design Process

Our teams have gotten into the habit of creating models whenever beneficial or necessary to help facilitate the design process. It only takes a few experiences using a 3D-printed model of a part to realize how much easier it can make production and inspection planning.

A physical representation allows you to see the features in a way you can’t visualize on paper or a screen. You can identify hard-to-machine and hard-to-finish areas much more quickly. 3D printed models are used for fixture design, CNC program writing, and deciding which tools and toolpath to use. Nearly every complex part or project that comes through our door goes to 3D printing during our planning process. We even had a 3D printed model made of the plans for our new facility so we can identify issues and opportunities to maximize the design.   

Integrating 3D Printing and Automation

We’ve seen that 3D printing and automation go hand-in-hand. Automating the production or handling of a part means addressing new challenges like transferring parts without scratching, damaging, or contaminating them, and finding ways to contain and store parts going into or coming out of machines. We’ve printed parts and fixtures to help run automated processes or link them together. We’re designing and printing everything from chutes and brackets to different end arm effectors and kits for holding and separating parts. The more automation we have and the more materials we can print with, the greater the opportunity to bring new ideas and efficiencies to life with 3D printing. 

Opportunities and Challenges Ahead

3D printing has changed the game when it comes to precision manufacturing, but there is still a lot of room to grow. We’re excited to see the development of technology to bring features like greater accuracy and repeatability, and the ability to print at the tighter tolerances required for processes such as CMM inspection.

With tools like 3D printing at our disposal, the only limit to our manufacturing capabilities is our creativity and vision. Our success will hinge on how fully we embrace our opportunity, expand our thinking, and welcome change and all of the possibilities it brings.

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