Linear Mold & Engineering
Linear EOS Machines
Rising demand for 3D-printed parts for the automotive and aerospace industries is driving one company's growth.
Linear Mold & Engineering, based in Livonia, MI, US, has seen orders for components made using direct metal laser sintering (DMLS) increase, and to help meet its customers' requirements the organisation recently installed its seventh 3D printer.
Linear chose an EOS M280 - it already has two such machines, along with four EOS M270 printers and a selected laser melting 280 printer.
The business designs and builds conformal cooling channels for injection moulds using DMLS for the mould manufacturing market. Linear's full-service engineering service specialises in making these moulds for a range of industries.
The growth segment of Linear is the design and build of 3D printed components for both prototype and end-use parts for the automotive, aerospace and energy industries.
Linear purchased its very first 3D printer, an EOS M270, in 2005 and since then the company has experienced continued growth in this segment of its business. Linear's 3D printing business unit more than doubled in 2013 year-on-year, creating the need for added DMLS capacity. Linear expects its 3D printing business to rise substantially this year.
John Tenbusch founded Linear 11 years ago as a mould manufacturing company. He first saw the DMLS process as a way to make hand-loaded loose inserts for prototype moulds to help reduce development time for his customers.
"We looked at it as a good tool," he said. "It was like having an EDM and CNC machining center together in one piece of equipment. We could build multiple inserts in the M270 and for companies looking for ways to crunch the time-to-market, it was great."
Tenbusch explained the word spread that Linear had a 3D printer that produced metal parts and more people came to the company to see what the machine could do.
"It got to the point where we couldn't make inserts anymore because we were busy making actual parts," he added.
This led to Linear's continued expansion with more equipment and an additional facility. Organic growth with its DMLS business spawned a separate business unit in a separate building, complete with CNC machines for post-processing the DMLS parts.
"We had to [make] our DMLS business separate from the mould-making business and form a separate company because our mould-making business was so busy we couldn't crack into the schedule to do the post-processing machining," Tenbusch said.
Linear's DMLS Manager Brandy Badami revealed that over the past few years, demand from the aerospace industry has seen a marked increase.
She said: "[Aerospace] is making the most advances in 3D printed components and putting the most R&D work into designing and developing 3D printed parts. They see the advantages to this process. Additionally with the acquisition of Morris Technologies by GE Aviation, it put the approval stamp on the process – validating it as not just a touchy feely prototype. That's what it was eight years ago when we got our first machine – as something that is cool but of not much use other than an engineering sample. That is still is the way other industries see it today, but the aerospace industry has adopted 3D printing as a valid manufacturing process for end-use parts."
Linear offers training services to educate customers in designing for 3D printing. Badami stated that once they learn how to produce CAD models for 3D printing their "possibilities are endless".
"If you were to have asked me a year ago where our business in 3D printing with DMLS and SLM was going, I'd have said that most of the excitement was designing for the process," noted Badami. "Companies started to realise that you can't just take a cast part or a machined part and create a 3D printed part from that. There have been a lot of changes in the guidelines for designing a component for the DMLS process. Designing for 3D printing is outside-the-box, non-traditional thinking, and Linear will train you."
As the 3D printing industry has grown rapidly, so has Linear. Growing interest in Linear's metal 3D printing capabilities mean Linear had to keep adding more and more equipment.
Badami said: "We believe we are the largest North American custom service provider for 3D metal printing and are a leader in this technology. Customers turn to us for our expertise in design, part development and showing them how this process can benefit their parts requirements."
With light-weighting being a key factor in the transportation industry, Badami noted that metal 3D printing can help the automotive and aerospace industries reduce weight in a number of ways. For example, using the 3D metal printing process allows companies to take what was a multi-piece assembly that required secondary operations such as welding or fastening and grow the entire assembly in one piece. Other benefits include reducing cost to manufacture by eliminating secondary assembly operations and reducing the footprint of the assembly.
"Maybe your assembly was 12" x 12" after all the secondary pieces were assembled, but if you can grow the entire assembly in one piece, there's a good chance that it might be half the size," Badami explained.
New materials have been developed at a rapid pace over the past few years, which has helped expand the range of metal 3D printing applications. Linear uses its SLM machines to primarily run aluminum and titanium parts - for which demand never ceases. Moreover, Linear welcomes customers who are developing their own powdered metals who need help testing and developing their new materials.
"We've been doing a lot of testing over the past few years, and this year we're seeing demand for the actual parts," Badami said.
Aerospace, automotive and energy companies continue to approach Linear to produce prototype parts in various materials. Samples are tested for tensile strength and certified prior to making end-use parts.
Linear has big plans for 2014 that will help the company meet this expanding demand for metal 3D printing. Tenbusch concluded: "We see a big future in this technology. Being an early adopter has given us a huge competitive edge in our markets."