Product development and rapid prototyping
Being employed by Alcatraz for many years now I have witnessed and caused many changes within the company. Working to achieve a higher level of quality, customer support and efficiency. In my early years at Alcatraz I have adopted the use of 2D engineering software used to design and develop products according to client requirements.
Using this 2D engineering software I soon noticed its limitations. And since the increase of client requests for more challenging designs, the requirements for more detailed documentation and marketing materials, the current software we used was in my opinion not suitable for the future.
As a result, I have tried several 3D engineering programs and made the choice to purchase Solidworks. It became the engineering software to be used throughout Alcatraz Interlocks.
This software enables us to have more freedom in producing our renowned designs and solutions. Further it allows us to develop new products faster and make them more reliable. Also we are able to easily produce highly detailed photorealistic renderings of existing and future products. And also simulate stresses on products to further fine-tune their reliability. Another outcome was that we would be able to use rapid prototyping for evaluation and having a hands-on feel of the design.
Either a good machine or we don’t get one at all
A few years ago 3D-printers came into the media. Ever since they have excited me as being a way to quickly develop and evaluate designed items. At that time these machines were not mainstream yet, so a 3D-printer would either be seriously expensive or of a terrible quality and poor handling. I discussed the possibilities with our Managing Director Lester Millard. He was pretty straight forward about it: “either we purchase a good professional machine or we don`t get one at all. This thing needs to be reliable, easy to handle and should produce good results”. Of course I agreed.
Later on we noticed that these 3D-printers were crossing our paths more often. When I was invited by our Solidworks reseller, who also is a reseller for professional 3D-printers under the name Layertec, to attend a seminar about 3D printing. Just a few months earlier Lester was visiting Rotork, a renowned manufacturer of valve actuators and gear units. As a coincidence Rotork`s Engineering Manager was using the same brand of 3D-printers our reseller offered me during the seminar. After a discussion of two guys enthusiastic about the 3D-printer it didn`t take long to order the 3D-printer.
The 3D-printer becomes useful
This Makerbot Replicator is literally a professional desktop solution. It`s easy to set-up and it’s easy to start a print. I can remotely monitor it, since it’s not sitting on my desk (it`s a bit noisy). The machine gives a good feedback. All in all a reliable and professional machine with an excellent build quality, producing good results while not breaking the bank.
During the last year of having the 3D-printer at our side we have found it to become quite useful. Here are a few examples:
- We have printed some of my new designs for future products to evaluate their shape and to get a feeling of how they look in real life. I surprised one of my colleagues who expected the actual product to be a lot larger than the printed assembly he was holding in his hands.
- One time I was designing a device with a mechanical timer and a few electrical parts which had to be placed close together. This would have been seriously challenging for production out of stock materials. I designed a single hub piece, which I coated with an epoxy resin after printing to give it absolute durability in a production environment. After curing of the resin the different parts snapped onto hub and was further mounted into its sheet metal casing.
- Since we made the transition to a hand wheel supplier that produces our hand wheels to the dimensional requirement that we have for our projects. In an earlier stage we have printed the revised hand wheel hubs that form the centrepiece and fit them to our castings to check if they would give a tight fit on all our parts respecting the minor tolerances we have in our castings.
- One of our representatives had a substantial order of which many valves had the same adapter connection that was off standard and their exact dimensions could not be taken properly due obstructions in a live plant. Based on a partial assumption of the actual form we printed an adapter which we suspected to have the correct shape and dimensions. We shipped over the printed part to our representative to check its fitting. They informed us that the printed adapter had a great fit, after which we immediately ordered production of the approved adapters.
- As a little challenge we received a miniature pneumatic valve from one of our relations. This valve has a linear movement which had to be driven by our rotary moving Lock Portion and Key. Since this would be too complicated or uneconomical to produce in a machine-shop, I could design this with a whole different approach using an organic design and not be bothered by any toolpaths. Taking into account the printing resolution and it`s tolerance, I was surprised to finger press one of the printed parts into another, resulting in a spot on fit. This put a smile on my face.
- Since we, in our development stages, often join our SS316 castings with the PLA print material, I found out that creating threads is even doable with this material. When some of the exceptions are respected, we can create threading from Metric 6 (and up) by keeping the printed hole smaller and drill it prior to tapping.
- Since our printer uses a single material, the printer will add support material in case of overhangs preventing the model from failing. To nicely remove this material we have purchased a model builders` grinder with all different types of bits, for grinding, scrapping, sanding and polishing. Meaning if I design and print very intricate parts that need to be assembled we can clean up the parts and assemble them into mechanically working items
Printing puzzles at home
All this has given me, and my colleagues at Alcatraz, a great experience with this tool. And I think it won`t take more than a year for me to have one at home printing puzzles, figurines, model kits and toys for and with my children.