Innovations could unleash custom manufacturing
TOKYO — Engineers in Japan are pursuing innovations in 3-D printing and other technology that could one day make custom manufacturing of industrial parts or semiconductors as cheap as mass production.The Tokyo-based Technology Research Association for Future Additive Manufacturing has built a prototype of a 3-D printer for industrial molds, which remain an indispensable tool for making components for cars, planes and other machinery. Among the association members leading the effort was 3-D printer maker CMET, a Yokohama-based subsidiary of manufacturer Nabtesco.The prototype makes molds in a process analogous to inkjet printing. Instead of ink, alternating squirts of sand and adhesive are used to build up the final product — hence the term “additive manufacturing.” Even intricate molds can be made in this way, which represents an improvement in efficiency over conventional methods.3-D printers can produce parts themselves with squirts of molten metal or plastic. They have also been used to make molds, but those attempts were not suited to producing a wide range of designs.The association’s prototype can build up forms at a rate of 100,000cc per hour. That is more than 100 times as fast as 3-D printers that produce metal parts. The machine can make molds up to 1.8 meters long, 1 meter wide and 0.75 meter deep, and it reuses excess sand. Operating costs would run the same as or lower than with existing 3-D printers performing a similar job.The completed molds can also be used in mass production, producing 20,000 automotive turbochargers a month or 3,000 engine cylinder heads in the same time, for example.The research association aims to have a practical version ready in fiscal 2017. Members including Nissan Motor, turbocharger maker IHI and earthmover manufacturer Komatsu are to take part in evaluating components cast with the printed molds.