Caterpillar Launches 3D Printing and Innovation Accelerator
Michael Molitch-Hou posted on May 11, 2016 |

Given the possibilities of 3D printing to create new, efficient designs and to reduce overall inventory for manufacturers, it should be no surprise that world-leading machinery producer Caterpillar Inc. has embraced the technology as well, with the launch of the Caterpillar 3D Printing & Innovation Accelerator. The launch of the new tech ecosystem corresponds with the opening of three new innovation spaces at Caterpillar’s Global Research & Development Center in Mossville, Illinois.

Caterpillar’s new Additive Manufacturing Factory features 10 industrial 3D printers using different technologies. (Image courtesy of Caterpillar.)
Caterpillar’s new Additive Manufacturing Factory features 10 industrial 3D printers using different technologies. (Image courtesy of Caterpillar.)

Like many manufacturers, Caterpillar has been using 3D printing for prototyping for some time. The company has printed 50,000 models for rapid prototyping purposes over the last 25 years. At the moment, Caterpillar already operates more than 80 different 3D printers throughout its business, including approximately 30 industrial systems and 50 desktop 3D printers. The 3D Printing & Innovation Accelerator will see the company further implement this technology through three new spaces that represent different parts of the manufacturing process: the Innovation Accelerator, the Additive Manufacturing Factory, and the Cat® MicroFoundry.

The Innovation Accelerator is set up for brainstorming and design with 3D modeling tools and a makerspace that allow Caterpillar team members to experiment with materials and create rough models of ideas. They can take these ideas across the hall to the Additive Manufacturing Factory. There they can see these concepts manifested physically through 3D printing on one of 10 commercial 3D printers, featuring a variety of technologies housed at the space. Finally, the Cat® MicroFoundry allows the company to create low-volume castings through sand 3D printing technology.

In addition to aiding in the prototyping process, the company will leverage the 3D Printing & Innovation Accelerator to design new parts specifically for 3D printing; e.g., items with reduced weight, complex geometries and more efficient designs. At the same time, Caterpillar will also use 3D printing to help its partners reduce stock through the creation of virtual inventories. 3D printing as a method for short-run production will additionally enable the company to manufacture goods at low volumes until it becomes feasible to implement mass manufacturing methods.

Of course, 3D printing is not yet a fully mature technology. For that reason, Caterpillar will collaborate with partners to close gaps associated with the technology. These limitations include the size of objects that can be 3D printed, the cost of materials, the speed of many 3D printing technologies, the capital cost of industrial machines, material properties of 3D printed objects, the design thinking associated with creating parts specifically for 3D printing, the lack of simulation, quality control technology for 3D printing and the quality of surface finish of 3D printed parts.

Caterpillar 3D printed 36 different track links before end-production, saving $160,000 in time and labor. (Image courtesy of Caterpillar.)
Caterpillar 3D printed 36 different track links before end-production, saving $160,000 in time and labor. (Image courtesy of Caterpillar.)

Despite some of the limitations of 3D printing, Caterpillar has already demonstrated the potential of the technology in a number of different projects. For instance, the company has 3D printed plastic gauges for measuring the wear of the teeth on an earthmover bucket. The gauges were determined to be as accurate as previously used metal gauges, but can be replaced more quickly when printed in a nest of four, saving material and time. According to Caterpillar, prototyping certain parts on track machines, like dozers, with plastic models before producing the final parts saved the company about $160,000 in time and labor, as well.

What is most striking about their new facility is not the general use of industrial 3D printers, but the fact that they've considered the use of the technology along every step of the supply chain—from prototyping to end-part manufacturing. Though Caterpillar was founded about 91 years ago, their implementation of 21st century technology through the 3D Printing & Innovation Accelerator seems to demonstrate that the company is maintaining a forward-thinking approach to manufacturing.

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