Here are just three uses the lab has found for AM in Caterpillar’s operations:
• Gaging. Caterpillar has identified a number of gaging needs that can be met with custom gages 3D-printed out of plastics. For example, the company has produced field gages to measure the wear on tips, the consumable “teeth” found on the edge of an earthmover’s bucket. The gages have numbers printed directly into them, making it easy for an on-site technician to determine the level of wear on a tip. And according to Jim LaHood, Caterpillar engineering specialist for 3D printing, the plastic gages are just as accurate as metal gages and can be replaced more quickly when they wear out. A set of the field tip gages can be made overnight.
They are printed in a stack of four nested together, using only $40-50 worth of plastic, for material as well as time savings.
• Molds. Caterpillar molds its own silicone masking in-house. The masking includes plugs and other shaped pieces of silicone to protect holes and pockets during processes such as powder coating. Previously, employees produced the masking on makeshift molds constructed of scrap metal. The molds were heavy and sharp, and known to fail frequently. The AM Group now offers the capability to create the molds out of polycarbonate rather than metal, resulting in lighter, more reliable molds. The lab estimates that this switch has saved $27,000 per year in repairs to molds.
• Production models. Caterpillar has found value in producing 3D-printed models of parts to optimize its systems before production begins in earnest. In one example, the company created 36 ABS polycarbonate models of large forged track links (components of the chain-like link assembly found on track-type machines like dozers) in various sizes to use for machine setup and CMM programming. Normally workers would need to use heavy wood models or wait for the foundry parts themselves to arrive to perform these setup tasks. With the plastic models, employees were able to work on fixturing and CMM applications before the forged parts arrived, saving time. Completing these tasks with the lightweight ABS models was made easier by eliminating the handling of heavier parts, and also protected the production parts from damage. The company estimates that it saved $160,000 in time and labor by making this switch.