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The gray, rectangular machine emitting a bright blue light doesn’t look particularly impressive as it quietly goes about its work at the Cummins Technical Center (CTC) in Columbus, Indiana….

But some believe the technology it uses could one day change manufacturing as we know it.

3D printers can take extremely detailed instructions to make precise objects a layer at a time, with relatively little waste and, theoretically at least, anywhere in the world. That could not only impact innovation, but perhaps inventory someday and transportation, too.

Right now, however, the technology is primarily used at Cummins to help engineers make detailed prototypes of the engine parts they design, and do it faster and more accurately than ever before.

“We can take somebody’s inspiration and by the end of the day they can hold it in their hands,” said Roger England, CTC’s Director of Materials Science & Technology.

Experimental Machining Technician Greg Streit controls one of the Cummins Technical Center’s two 3D printers in Columbus, Indiana (U.S.A.).
Experimental Machining Technician Greg Streit controls one of the Cummins Technical Center’s two 3D printers in Columbus, Indiana (U.S.A.).

 

CTC in Columbus has two 3D printers in its newly dedicated Additive Manufacturing Laboratory. The lab is part of the center’s Materials Laboratories, which are capable of everything from exploring the molecular make up of metals to chemically identifying substances discovered in or near a customer’s engine.

The 3D printers, along with other high-tech equipment such as a microscope with the magnification power necessary to read a newspaper laying on the moon, are part of a significant upgrade of the labs over the past two years. The changes are designed to help Cummins keep pace with customer demands for cleaner, more efficient engines with the power and dependability they need to succeed.

“Really, what it amounts to is this,” said England, who has a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering. “We’re to a point that when we optimize a diesel engine, we’re actually working in the realm of atoms to gain efficiency.”

Before 3D printing, engineers had few options but to create a prototype component by designing it on a computer and then working with CTC’s Experimental Manufacturing Laboratory to create the part by machining it from solid material.

A 3D printed part, however, can go directly from design to build. If engineers find they want to make changes, they can do so, and a new part is printed. In an environment where every atom counts, that can sometimes make a significant difference.

The technology isn’t right for every project, but Cummins has been using it to develop precise castings where appropriate for several years. It was used, for example, to create the casting prototypes for the cylinder heads on the QSK95, the largest high-speed diesel engine in the world. Cummins introduced the engine in 2011.

The center’s new 3D printers can make prototypes ranging from formed rubber hoses to parts made of extremely strong polymers that can actually be used on a running engine. One printer uses ultraviolet light to cure the different materials, and the newest unit in the lab uses lasers to fuse powdered material into solid.

A crescent wrench made using a 3D printer.
A crescent wrench made using a 3D printer.

 

The company also works with 3D printed metals, but through partnerships with research laboratories like the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tenn. (U.S.A.), where England is a visiting scientist and maintains an office.

“They have 13 different pieces of equipment there capable of 3D metal printing,” he said. “So we have the ability to work there and see where we are headed with this kind of technology.”

England likens the current situation with metal 3D printers to the mid-1970s when the VHS and Beta formats were battling for supremacy in the home video recorder business. VHS eventually won and people who bet on Beta were out of luck.

“That’s why we like to leverage partnerships with Oak Ridge and universities,” England said. “We can work with them and increase our comfort level with a new technology before we invest and incorporate it into our own facilities.”

Cummins wants to take advantage of 3D printers’ capabilities today to positively impact engine design, and be well acquainted with the technology if it ultimately plays an even bigger role in manufacturing in the future.

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This article is part of a 2016 series that highlights STEM (Science Engineering Technology and Math)-related topics. You can read the other articles here.

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