300 small Michigan makers got free 3D printers. What they did with them might surprise you.

Ultimation Industries, a manufacturer of conveyor systems, is one of 300 companies in the Detroit metro area to receive a free 3D printer through a local government program. The idea, similar to the Federal Defense Production Act, is that in exchange for Markforged’s $20,000 professional-grade 3D printer, small and medium-sized manufacturers promise to make things, like PPE or everything that is necessary, in case of emergency. .

Although the program started in 2020 with PPE in mind, this army of nimble manufacturers armed with 3D printers has since built their supply chain resilience and reduced their reliance on foreign products.

Called Project DIAMOnD for Distributed, Independent, Agile, Manufacturing On-Demand, it is poised to become the world’s largest emergency response network for 3D printing physical objects on demand. Locally, over the past two years, the program has helped small manufacturers realize savings and flexibility they didn’t know were possible with 3D printing. They printed parts to keep their lines operational and versatile in the face of disruptions and discovered new business opportunities.

“The potential for 3D printing is limitless, and it’s starting to unfold in Michigan,” says Tom Kelly, executive director and CEO of Automation Alley, which manages the DIAMOnD project and is an Advanced Manufacturing Center for the Economic Forum. global. The project is on its way to becoming the world’s largest emergency response network for 3D printing physical objects on demand.

3D printing for Ukraine

Although program participants have printed PPE, more recently the network has been activated to 3D print components for tourniquets needed in Ukraine. According to Automation Alley, 3D printing is the ideal technology to produce the parts needed in times of crisis, such as times of war and pandemics, due to its flexibility and speed. The tourniquet clip could not be easily produced using conventional manufacturing, such as injection molding, due to the time-consuming mold manufacturing step and cost. But spread out, with each participant only 3D printing a dozen components, the cost and time didn’t disrupt their core business. Part designs were shared digitally and production quickly increased. Ultimation Industries was one of the first to produce parts.

“As a manufacturer, the DIAMOnD project allowed us to contribute to humanitarian efforts when called upon while experimenting with 3D printing and innovating for our own business,” said Richard Canny, president of Ultimation Industries.

When printers are not used to fulfill emergency orders, participating manufacturers use them in different ways. Many of these manufacturers had never considered using 3D printing in their business, while others thought they couldn’t afford it or didn’t have the skills to make the most of it. .

“By reducing financial risk, providing interactive training, and creating a network of connected users, the DIAMonD project has filled a much-needed gap in Michigan’s manufacturing ecosystem,” said Pavan Muzumdar, COO of ‘Automation Alley.

To date, the project has attracted an impressive list of contributors and supporters, with Markforged leading the way with its Mark Two and X7 carbon fiber desktop 3D printers and Eiger 3D printing software. Microsoft, Autodesk and on-demand manufacturing software maker 3YourMind are also participating.

Convince small manufacturers to bet on 3D printing

“3D printing has always been something we’ve been interested in, but we were skeptical about how to integrate it into our industry,” says Joshua Tucker, purchasing manager at Tucker Induction Systems in Shelby Township, Michigan. “Given that 95% of the material we use to withstand high heat in a harsh environment, I’m surprised what we’ve been able to print so far as tools to help us build our induction coils with smaller support details that we were able to install on our reels that are running in the field.”

Tucker says that with 3D print fabrication tools, his company has cut the time for some projects from around two weeks to a few days. “By designing and 3D printing a device that allowed us to retain multiple details at once, we eliminated multiple machining steps and multiple machine setups, and dramatically reduced labor hours on a job, allowing the company to save money and improve lead times.”

Steve Michon, President of Zero Tolerance in Clinton Township, Michigan, received his first Markforged 3D printer in 2021 and has since purchased two more. His company designs and manufactures plastic injection molds, but has expanded its services since integrating 3D printing.

“With our printers, we have made multiple fixtures for customers, loading tools and end-of-arm tools, in addition to the tooling we make for our own in-house processes,” says Michon. “With our design experience and CAD skills, we really can now offer a whole different service that we didn’t have before, which has opened us up to new customers.”

Zero Tolerance now offers a range of 3D printing for product prototyping and end-use parts as well as design services to other manufacturers. Michon gives back to the DIAMOnD project network by helping fellow program participants, like the time a call was made for anyone who could help a participant, an electrical supplies manufacturer, overcome their supply chain issues. “We ended up drawing [digital designs for] a few parts he needed so he could 3D print them in-house very inexpensively, and he could make as many as he wanted,” says Michon. The electrical equipment maker eventually purchased two more 3D printers to speed up production of the part. .

Jim Miller, CEO of Rochester Hills-based Air & Liquid Systems, says his company is using its 3D printer to print a part that was previously stainless steel and cost around $100. Now it only costs them $1 to 3D print it in carbon fiber. Their printer is placed in their engineering area to make engineers more curious about what else they can create, changing the way they think about production and their business.

There is no success story behind each of the 300 3D printers. At regular meetings and lunch and learn sessions for program participants, Michon says he’s gotten to know companies that have created new products and streamlined workflows, and others that are struggling to find a app for technology.

One hurdle, suggests Michon, is the digital design skills required to create parts to be 3D printed in the first place. Recently, the DIAMOnD project received funding from the State of Michigan’s Going Pro Talent Fund to train 37 people from 20 network companies in advanced 3D printing and design concepts.

“As companies are forced to change and adapt, they are finding new ways to get work done and Industry 4.0 technologies such as 3D printing are leading the way,” says Muzumdar.

Eventually, Automation Alley hopes to expand beyond Michigan, establish a community marketplace for 3D printed products and services, and explore opportunities for 3D printing non-traditional materials and working with collaborative robots and AI. as a service.

“When we first got involved, we had no experience with 3D printing and had trouble imagining how we could fit it into our business,” says Tucker, “but once you start change your mindset, the possibilities are truly endless.”

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