Expert Interview: Eckhart’s Additive Manufacturing Application Engineer, Robert Heath, on 3D Printing, Automation and Industry 4.0
In an era of Industry 4.0, greater efficiency and product innovation are key priorities for manufacturers. 3D printing is one technology that is being leveraged to provide both.
One way 3D printing can help is through the production of ergonomic tooling and manufacturing aids that can accelerate the assembly process and create a safer working environment for operators on the production floor.
Eckhart is a US-based company that specialises in the design, engineering and manufacture of factory automation equipment. At the forefront of Industry 4.0, the company has adopted 3D printing, alongside robotics and other automated solutions, to do just that.
In this week’s Expert Interview, we speak with Robert Heath, Eckhart’s AM Application Engineer, to discuss the benefits of 3D-printed tools, the need for education when it comes to AM, as well as the advantages of automation.
Could you tell me a bit about Eckhart?
Eckhart is an Industry 4.0 leader specialising in industrial automation. We create, among other things, lift assists, secure tools and autonomous guided vehicles.
Much of what we focus on is collaborative robots and 3D printing. We help companies automate repetitive tasks and enable operators to better do their jobs on the assembly line.
We have a wide range of customers, including automotive companies, as well as some of the heavy industrial and agricultural companies like John Deere and Caterpillar.
What are some of the challenges your customers come to you with?
It can be industry-specific. However, a lot of the challenges do have the underlying issue of either ergonomics or looking to improve the cycle time and quality of the part.
What I work on the most is developing ergonomic solutions for hand tools. That’s really what we’re focused on with 3D printing in our company.
A lot of these hand tools were made out of aluminium and so they’re still heavy and right at that ergonomic limit of what an operator should be lifting repetitively or reaching with.
We’ve been implementing 3D printing in those situations where we can take further weight out of the tool to make it lighter and a little bit more operator-friendly. We can print the geometry to make the tool more ergonomic, thus giving operators a better tool than what was previously available.
What was the reason for bringing 3D printing in-house and what has the process of adopting the technology been like?
We purchased the printers in 2017. Before buying the 3D printers, we were outsourcing a significant amount of jobs to other companies to 3D print parts for us.
So it was a cost reduction move as well as a strategic business move to get into the AM space and to start promoting additive manufacturing with our customers more. By using 3D printing in-house, we have a better cost and quality control over the parts.
Also, as a company, we don’t produce anything that you can just look up in a catalogue and buy. Everything we make is completely custom. So it made sense to adopt 3D printing because we do a lot of one-offs.
Could you elaborate on the solutions Eckhart is developing when it comes to automation?
Let’s take automotive as an example, as we work a lot with automotive companies. Their job rate is maybe 60 jobs per hour, so operators are getting a new vehicle every minute.
One of the things we’ve done with 3D printing is develop a lug nuts starter tool. This tool is used by the operator, who holds it in one hand and places all of the lug nuts into the sockets on this tool. The operator can then put it to the tyre and all of those lug nuts are started at once.
While it’s not a full-on robotic solution, we did further automate the process because the operator no longer has to hold one lug nut at a time and twist them with their fingers to hand start them onto all the vehicles.
Operators are doing this repeatedly up to 60 times an hour for an eight-hour shift. If you multiply that by five days, that’s a lot of twisting with your fingers. We were able to alleviate the stress on the operator’s body with this 3D-printed tool.
We also run the whole gamut of collaborative robots. For example, we had an application with a company where it was looking to increase the cycle time when pulling a metal injected part out of the mould.
One of the difficulties they were experiencing was that the part was incredibly hot because it was metal injection moulded. So there were safety factors to consider. We were able to develop a robotic solution that can pull out the part without an operator needing to handle the part.
Also, since the part is hot, it’s still a little bit pliable when it comes out of the mould. So we had to use a special grip to only squeeze the part with the right amount of force just enough to hold it but not enough to deform it.
So with robotics and automation, we were able to dial in those settings to our requirements. And one of the side benefits of that particular robot installation was that the quality of the part increased dramatically because the mould wasn’t cooling as much as it was with a regular operator there.
The company has been able to increase their cycle time, their quality has gone up and now they’ve got an employee that can do more value-added work instead of just standing at a press pulling parts out of a machine all day. That’s all thanks to automation.
How do you typically work with customers?
One of the things we push for is to have a workshop where a team of representatives from Eckhart meet with the customer and we visit their facility.
We like to meet a customer’s designers, as well as the manufacturing engineers, technicians or operators — the shop floor people that are going to be using this tool or these solutions. Then we sit down and go over what additive is.
Some of the questions we need to ask are what are the challenges the operators are facing? What is the customer looking to gain?
Working in these small teams, we are able to identify a lot of opportunities with each customer. After that, we work with the customer to develop a strategy to implement any number of those ideas.
Can you share any examples of how you’ve helped a client achieve their objectives with 3D printing?
Whenever we design a tool for a customer and get the design approved, we build and test it internally with their product. Then we show the customer how it works and how the tool interacts with their product.
Going back to that lug nut starter tool that we produced, we consider that to be a huge success. The customer was incredibly ecstatic about how beneficial this tool was going to be for their use.
When speaking with your customers about additive manufacturing, have you found that they are very knowledgeable about the technology? Or do you have to do a lot of educating as well?
We do have some customers who are very knowledgeable and have prior experience with 3D printers, whether in their current role or in a previous role.
Then there are many others who need much more educating. I would say that more often than not I’m doing some educating on 3D printing and what its capabilities are.
To that point, when I have to educate there is often also a bit of resistance and trepidation on the customer’s side, as they’re not sure if it will work. In traditional manufacturing, we tend to stick with what works.
So would you say that when it comes to AM, there is still a tendency to think in terms of traditional manufacturing as opposed to the needs of additive manufacturing?
Yes. Once I get a customer to work with additive, the next step then is to say, “This is what we’re manufacturing here and here’s how we can make the part better.”
If we take a part that was designed with traditional manufacturing methods, it is almost always going to be cheaper to manufacture that part with traditional methods.
But if we take that same part and redesign it so that it is made for additive manufacturing, then we’re able to look at which way will be cheaper, and it winds up being better overall for the AM process.
In your view, what more needs to be done to accelerate the adoption of 3D printing?
There needs to be more education on the materials and their actual properties. I get a lot of questions like, “Can you print me a part out of UHMW (Ultra-high-molecular-weight polyethylene)?”
My response is always, “No, I can’t print UHMW. But I can make something similar so that.”
So my biggest challenge is probably the lack of knowledge of materials or the testing on some of the materials.
We have a partnership with Stratasys and work with them frequently. They’re very good at knowing how the materials work and how they are processed through the printers, while we’re good at knowing the part function. So it’s a good partnership for us both.
How do you see additive manufacturing evolving over the next few years?
I see a wider range of materials being developed. We’re much more able to refine the actual processing of the material through the machines, and we’re getting better with the materials that we already have.
The industry is also looking at those other materials that are perhaps not as easy or “AM-friendly” as something like PLA which is a pretty common material.
I also think we’ll see an increase in machine capabilities and speed in the next few years.
What’s next on the horizon for Eckhart?
We’re always trying to push the boundaries with AM. We’re thinking outside the box on what else we can do with the technology and we’re constantly trying to use it in applications that we never thought we would use it.
For example, we recently completely 3D printed a lift assist tool to pick up an aluminium cast housing for one of our customers, and this is starting to sprout a couple more opportunities for lift assists.
So we’re excited about that and looking forward to solving other complex challenges with additive manufacturing.
To learn more about Eckhart, visit: https://www.eckhartusa.com/