Shifting the manufacturing paradigm

Dr Srinivas Garimella shares his experience in establishing additive manufacturing as a one of Eaton’s key manufacturing technologies

Additive manufacturing is sweeping the industrial landscape with novel designs, unprecedented speed-to-market, highly flexible supply chains, and new business models. New processes, materials, equipment, and companies are announced almost daily. Additive manufacturing technologies offer many different industries the opportunity to accelerate product prototyping, manufacturing and assembly. This in turn empowers engineers. With the ability to iterate designs quickly and cost-effectively, additive technologies are shifting the paradigm from ‘design for manufacture’ to ‘manufacture for design’.

How Eaton’s Additive Manufacturing Centre of Excellence was born

In 2014 our executive vice president and CTO, Ramanath Ramakrishnan, commissioned an internal team to develop Eaton’s strategy for additive manufacturing. I was on the team charged with understanding the current state-of-the-art and the surrounding ecosystem, launching pilot projects, and determining the implications to our various business based upon these learnings.

After a series of successful pilots, I led the development of the business case to set up Eaton’s Additive Manufacturing Centre of Excellence (AM CoE) to drive innovation and deployment of additive manufacturing technologies across the company. In early 2016, our new team secured a dedicated 3,700ft2 space within Eaton’s Southfield Innovation Centre in Michigan, USA and installed an array of metal and polymer 3D printers and post-processing equipment.

Today, we are guiding the organisation as it approaches an era of massive technological change that is set to transform how people think about manufacturing. Our charter is broad and includes: (a) serving as an internal service ‘bureau’ that supplies rapid prototyping and tooling to our businesses; (b) developing know-how in additive design, materials, and processes; (c) collaborating with businesses to identify and develop additive products; (d) serving as a low rate initial production of metal and polymer parts for aerospace, electrical and other customers; and (e) educating and training employees in the power of additive.

Today, we qualify material choices, then tap into our knowledge of the additive manufacturing process and component design expertise to rapidly produce prototype products. The result is shortened development and manufacturing lead times, improved speed to market, reduced manufacturing costs and better product performance.

Our people

Initially, the AM CoE consisted of a very small team. For the first year, we focused on building awareness within Eaton of our capabilities and working with engineering teams to identify potential additive projects

Today, we are a diverse global team and have wide ranging experience spanning the entire value chain of additive. For all the advanced technologies and agile processes in the AM CoE, our people are the driving force behind our ability to innovate. Our team’s approach combines agile development sprints with experimental design to move quickly, but also in a systematic and rigorous way.

Our partners

One of our biggest business unit partners is Eaton’s aerospace business. In aerospace manufacturing, additive technologies allow us to consolidate parts, produce complex geometries not possible with conventional manufacturing, and reduce the size and weight of aircraft components and systems. Ultimately, additive parts make it possible to improve aircraft fuel efficiency, design flexibility and reliability.

Early additive manufacturing focused on aerospace products made of high-cost materials such as cobalt, chrome, titanium and Inconel. However, we saw a growing need to capture the speed, cost and system performance benefits for less expensive aerospace materials like aluminium.

Project highlight

One major aluminium alloy project we worked on recently was the ram air valve assembly on Aerospace Industrial Development Corporation’s Advanced Jet Trainer. It was a very complex part with lots of structures inside it that were difficult to support or required particular orientations during the printing process.

My team put considerable effort into streamlining manufacturing for the assembly. At first, it looked like we’d only be able to put two or three parts on the build platform, which wasn’t efficient – especially for our dual laser machine. We finally found a way to fit an even number of parts on the platform, so manufacturing would take an equal amount of time. By maximising the utilisation of the build envelope, we greatly reduced the cost to produce each set of components.

Ultimately, we consolidated a total of 22 parts into two printed components, reducing assembly time and eliminating potential leak paths like seals and threaded joints. The final product also weighs significantly less, but I think even more impressive was simply the speed of design and production. We were on a tight timescale – just a few months, compared to years of development for other projects. It was an excellent demonstration of the agility and flexibility we gain by leveraging additive manufacturing.

Innovation is key

Another of the AM CoE’s biggest milestones was obtaining AS9100 quality certification, something essential to supplying 3D printed parts to aerospace customers. In 2017, we realised we needed certification within 12 months in order to be able supply parts as a natural progression of our product development efforts, but we didn’t even have a quality person or manufacturing engineer at that point on the team!

Since we had to hit the ground running, we didn’t have enough time to write a quality manual detailing all our processes and procedures in compliance with the AS9100 standard – typical of Quality Management Systems (QMS). Instead, we opted for a ‘lean’ QMS and, with the help of an external consultant who developed this methodology, adapted it for the requirements of additive manufacturing. We developed a dynamic, linked QMS that maps our workflows. It’s an innovative approach that cuts out the fat of a traditional QMS and turns AS9100 requirements into processes that are practiced daily. The system also provided the foundation for my vision for AM CoE to be a digital factory.

Select prototypes printed in Eaton’s AM Center of Excellence to illustrate the power of additive manufacturing (Credit: Eaton)

During our certification audit, the auditor was initially sceptical as it was the first QMS of its kind he had encountered, but by the end he was very impressed—even noting that it should become a benchmark for other sites. We passed our quality audit with zero findings, something rare for a brand-new site!

Manufacturing excellence is all about process control and repeatable quality, but R&D requires moving quickly and continuous innovation. There’s an inherent tension between the two, and it’s a tightrope we walk on a daily basis.

We balance our ability to build and deliver for customers with trying new things, pivoting when we reach dead-ends, staying on top of development, and constantly reinventing ourselves. It’s a mindset which is now woven into our DNA.

What next?

Today, the AM CoE continues to go from strength to strength. In 2018, we expanded our footprint into Eaton’s Innovation Centre in Pune, India. We started as a small team with a shoestring budget – so it gives me enormous joy to see what we’ve achieved in less than three years.

As the technologies keep advancing, we get closer to realising the full potential of additive manufacturing. For instance, as the machines get larger and faster with advancements in laser technologies, as the machine software and hardware become more robust, as the root causes of part-to-part variability are better understood, and as the need for post processing (e.g., support removal, surface treatment) is further reduced, we get closer and closer to a broader application of additive for series production.

We’re ushering in this future by working closely with the OEMs, universities, national labs, and innovation hubs that are making these strides. We’re constantly scanning the horizon to identify new opportunities for additive and keep pace with the state-of-the-art. For instance, we’ve joined the Next Manufacturing Consortium at Carnegie Mellon University, a leading centre for additive manufacturing innovation that’s currently supporting NASA and leading the charge to harness the benefits of artificial intelligence (AI) in 3D-printing.

The time is right for the AM CoE to take on the challenge to exploit the full potential of additive. As the additive technologies continue to develop rapidly and tools like AI/machine learning enhance what we can already do, the sky is the limit – not just for aerospace, but for all manufacturing.

Dr Srinivas Garimella is the global leader of Eaton’s Additive Manufacturing Centre of Excellence