Defense

April 3, 2013

State-of-the-art 3D printers cut costs, turnaround time

Engineering Tech Mikael Mead of Tobyhanna Army Depot, Penn., removes a small production run of finished lens covers from the printing tray of a polyjet 3-D printer. Three-dimensional printers produce parts out of plastic and other durable materials.

Engineers and technicians at Tobyhanna Army Depot, Penn., use a highly innovative, cutting-edge fabrication process to significantly cut costs and reduce turnaround time.

The depot’s additive manufacturing process uses two, three-dimensional 3-D printers to produce parts out of plastic and other durable materials. Unlike traditional design methods where a part is made from a block of material and the excess is discarded, additive manufacturing uses only material necessary for the part, saving money and minimizing waste.

Electronics Engineer Corey Sheakoski said the benefits and potential of this process are nearly unlimited.

“Tobyhanna has the ability to make any type of plastic part, as long as we have a 3D model for it and it fits within a certain set of dimensions,” he said. Sheakoski works in the Production Engineering Directorate’s, or PED’s, Mission Software Branch.

Recently, a shortage of parts was delaying delivery of Harris radios. The radios required the installation of small dust caps prior to shipping to the customer. Finding and getting the part from a vendor could have taken weeks; so instead, Mechanical Engineer Eugene Haikes designed a 3-D model of the part and the depot printed 600 dust caps in 16 hours.

Mikael Mead, engineering tech in PED’s Design and Development Branch, said the decision to make the part at the depot saved a substantial amount of money and precious time.

“If the depot wanted to produce the dust caps but didn’t have a rubber mold for them, we could have expected to pay anywhere from $5,000 to $15,000 for the mold,” said Mead. “Because Eugene was able to come up with the model, we were able to produce the caps for only a dollar apiece while trimming days, if not weeks, off of our anticipated delivery date.”

Haikes, who works in PED’s Manufacturing Engineering Branch, said the whole process provides added benefit to both the depot and the customer.

“Some parts can be made through 3-D printing that just cannot be produced by conventional methods,” he said. “Other advantages with this process are that machine time is not charged to the customer and it can run overnight and during the weekend.”

Tobyhanna has been using additive manufacturing since the arrival of the first 3-D printer in the fall of 2006. The process begins with a computerized 3-D model that is programmed into one of two high-tech printers. The machine then builds a part, layer by layer, based on the model’s design.

The depot’s first 3-D printer, a fused deposition modeling machine, or FDM, is capable of making parts out of ABS plastic within a 10 x 10 x 12 in. area. The second machine, a polyjet printer, was purchased in April 2012, and can make parts out of hundreds of composite materials within an 8 x 16 x 19 in. area.

The FDM machine produces parts accurate to one one-hundreth of an inch of the computerized model, while the polyjet printer is accurate to .002 inch. This capability also allows depot engineers to print parts to use as prototypes and test pieces.

Sheakoski added that the future of additive manufacturing and 3-D printing technology holds nothing but promise.

“When you look at some of the benefits of 3-D printing – the cost savings, reduction in turnaround times, reliability – it’s exciting to think where it can go from here,” he said. “Additive manufacturing is helping the depot cut costs during tough times while continually supporting the warfighter with high-quality products.”

Tobyhanna Army Depot is the Defense Department’s largest center for the repair, overhaul and fabrication of a wide variety of electronics systems and components, from tactical field radios to the ground terminals for the defense satellite communications network. Tobyhanna’s missions support all branches of the armed forces.

About 5,100 personnel are employed at Tobyhanna, which is located in the Pocono Mountains of northeastern Pennsylvania. Tobyhanna Army Depot is part of the U.S. Army Communications-Electronics Command. Headquartered at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md., the command’s mission is to research, develop, acquire, field and sustain communications, command, control computer, intelligence, electronic warfare and sensors capabilities for the armed forces.

 




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