As Craig Sutton weaves his way through John Deere’s Technology and Innovation Center’s (MTIC) Additive Manufacturing Lab (MTIC) in Moline, Illinois, his excitement about advancements in the technology – also known as 3D printing – is evident.
He moves from machine to machine, prototype part to prototype part. He points to what looks like a garage sale table covered with highly-sophisticated ideas. In this age of 3D printing, the table is full of them – and that’s one of the appeals of this ever-evolving technology.
Fifteen years ago, 3D printing was used mainly by John Deere’s plastic engineering group to provide prototypes to engineers designing plastic parts. Back then, the MTIC 3D printing activities would have been considered the best kept secret in the company. At the time there was one printer, and it took up about four square feet.
Today, Sutton, manager of technology strategy, stands in the middle of a lab that spans two rooms and totals more than 1,000 square feet. The lab is a booming service that literally takes ideas from the customer (other Deere facilities) and prints them out of various materials – including metals – with innovative and industry-changing results.
It’s clear now, that future is here.
John Deere, like other manufacturers, has certainly found a place for 3D printing. A recent Wall Street Journal story reported that the technology is being used in construction industry to build homes and businesses. The story showed a 3D printer that used concrete. The Journal also reported that the first all-electric 3D printed car is slated to be produced later this year.
At John Deere, the focus of additive manufacturing is expanding beyond just prototypes and tooling. The company is quickly building momentum toward how it could be used in producing parts and integrated into new product programs. The scope and future impact of the technology will affect all areas of John Deere’s business – from strategic manufacturing to every region where Deere sells its products.
Tooling is the biggest success story, Sutton said. Factories can make tools that they couldn’t make economically before, bringing more value to the assembly operations.
The amount of tooling done using 3D printing has seen “significant” growth, Sutton said. In the last 18 months, Deere’s tooling competency group deployed more than 40 3D printers, putting the tools into factories to address the growing need.
Eric Johnson, senior staff manufacturing engineer, put it another way. “Tooling has been turned loose into the wild,” he said with a laugh.
Sutton and Johnson both know the company is not nearing the edge of the technology, it is standing squarely on it. And their enthusiasm for what’s next is clearly visible and certainly contagious.
Chris Myers, global director of John Deere’s Tractor Platform Engineering is “very intrigued” by the possibilities and shares the positivity.
“We’re looking at a situation where we could have spare parts on demand,” Myers said. “Someday dealers could have this technology and then we are addressing and meeting a customer’s uptime concerns immediately.”
The 3D Business
What helped accelerate 3D printing technology’s growth is improved printers, reduced machine costs, and more material options. These options include the ability to combine plastics that can merge rigid and pliable materials to produce a part.
So Sutton and Johnson took materials to facilities around the company to show engineers and leaders what could be done. “You have to know what your foundational materials are going to be when you ask for a part to be made,” Sutton said. “It’s the top baseline or main entry point into the 3D printing discussion. If you can’t answer that question, it’s a showstopper pretty quick.”
“We were drumming up business,” Sutton said. “We’re looking at it as a way to supplement rapid iterations of designs, low volume, or even the parts business. When it either takes you a long time to make the part or costs a lot of money to make the part, that’s where we can help.”
Johnson said part of the learning curve and adoption was taking a “3D printing-first mentality” once they get a request. “I’m always wanting to know, ‘Can we do it on a 3D printer first?’” Johnson added.
Exploring Other Applications
Myers said 3D printing’s ability to strip away limitations allows for more creative thinking.
“It allows us to move material and heat in different ways,” he said.
Myers uses a tractor’s radiator and cooling system as an example. “It’s a situation,” he said, “where we don’t have to be locked in by shape and size.”
Think of it as loading the trunk of your car with the same-sized suitcases each time. Now, imagine, changing those suitcases to fit the shape of the trunk. Myers said the same is true for what sits under the hood of a tractor. The radiator is locked into certain locations, which then sets the limits for where surrounding components must go.
“Additive manufacturing does enable us to go beyond the traditional manufacturing methods and get better performance as well as better packaging and more advantageous shapes,” Myers added.
Sutton points to John Deere Electronic Solutions (JDES) in Fargo, North Dakota, as another opportunity. JDES develops reliable and rugged electronic components and systems that function under the most extreme conditions.
“We’ve talked with them about their functional limits,” Sutton said. “Electric drives tend to run up against a heat limit. We’ve got to get heat away. It’s the circuitry or the cooling mechanisms to our circuitry where they can print chambers. The idea is, where they want to put electronics into our products and how can we help support that.”
Johnson stresses that no matter what the part is, it is measured against John Deere specs, standards, and quality procedures. “The customer would never know the difference because there is no difference,” he adds. “It is a John Deere part – simple as that.”
The Biggest Challenges
Currently, the tallest hurdles for additive manufacturing are speed and material cost. But Johnson notes that the time required to produce a part is decreasing. Costs are falling as well due to increases in competition among manufacturers of 3D printers. The more mainstream the technology becomes, the more the benefits grow.
“There are two clear efficiencies,” Johnson said. “We can produce items with fewer parts and part numbers. This leads to an 80 percent reduction in part numbers and a 90 percent reduction in weight with increased functionality.”
Myers agrees. “The questions will be, ‘Is this a scalable and a cost-effective process in our industry at our volumes? Can we mass-produce and make it efficiently?’”he said. “Seeing the technical and engineering advantages is one thing. We can go down that path and it makes sense. From a cost perspective, though, that may not be the case. Are we willing to pay for those benefits?”
When it comes to next steps, Myers puts the importance of the technology in a more serious tone.
“I believe there is a lot of product design Intellectual Property in additive manufacturing that can differentiate us from our competitors and provide better value to our customers,” he said. “This is an area we must explore and own. We do not want to be second in this race.”