3 things to know about 3D printing construction equipment

3d printing excavator heavy equipment
The Association of Equipment Manufacturers  and Oak Ridge National Laboratory used 3D printing to build an excavator, which debuted during the Tech Experience at CONEXPO-AGG and IFPE in 2017.

3D printing has slowly but surely evolved into a disruptive technology poised to have far-reaching effects on the heavy equipment industry.

The Association of Equipment Manufacturers (AEM) was part of the team effort to develop that 3D-printed excavator. AEM relays three things to keep in mind when looking at 3D printing and its potential for equipment manufacturing.

3D printing has potential, but it is still evolving

The current consensus among additive manufacturing experts is that the technology’s immediate potential can be most readily found in smaller-scale deployments, according to Dr. Lonnie Love, corporate research fellow at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

“3D printing is not going to change all of manufacturing overnight,” Love said. “It’s not going to displace casting. It’s not going to displace welding.”

One key hurdle to adoption is that 3D printing is not yet fast enough, Love added.

“When you make these great parts at low volumes, you don’t care that it takes a week or a month … but we’ve got to go faster because it drives the productivity up and the costs down (for manufacturers).”

3D printing can help achieve new goals

Love and his colleagues at Oak Ridge National Laboratory can attest to both the technology’s capability and its value proposition for manufacturers.

They were involved in building the world’s first operational 3D-printed excavator, unveiled at the Tech Experience at CONEXPO-CON/AGG and IFPE 2017.

Known as Project AME (Additive Manufactured Excavator), the excavator was 3D printed using various machines to create three components: a cab, a boom and a heat exchanger. The excavator’s boom was fabricated using a cutting-edge free-form additive manufacturing technique to print large-scale metal components.

The success of Project AME proved the sky is really the limit in terms of 3D printing technology.

3D printing can help manufacturers create efficiencies

The costly and time-consuming process of tooling is a prime example of an opportunity for manufacturers to use 3D printing to create efficiencies.

According to Love, the production of molds, jigs and fixtures used in the mass production of heavy equipment can take months, cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and involve tooling companies based overseas. However, Love believes that the widespread adoption of additive manufacturing could change all that.

“This may be a mechanism to rapidly get tooling back in the U.S.,” Love said. “To make it take days and not months. It costs thousands instead of hundreds of thousands. We’ve already proven this on the automotive and aerospace sides. Now it’s time to take a look at construction.”

The equipment industry has earned a reputation for designing and building machinery that stays in use for decades. However, manufacturers spend heavily to keep massive inventories of spare parts on hand to meet customer needs.

According to Love, companies are now combating that challenge by reducing overhead costs of warehouse space through 3D printing.

“The advantage of this technology is you could actually print a replacement part without having to have that inventory,” Love said. “That, to me, has tremendous potential.”