Imagine an emergency in an isolated subway station. Medical assistance might be needed, or an unsavory situation could demand attention. Pressing a button on a safety and communication kiosk could alert authorities.
That button could be on a mass transit emergency response Help Point Unit designed, built, and installed by Boyce Technologies, Long Island, N.Y. Intercom systems, security alarm systems, and radio and wireless networks also are part of its specialized offerings.
Regardless of often harsh physical environments, distance from the party receiving the call, space limitations, or even location aesthetics, functionality is critical. Systems failure is not an option.
The failure-proof requirement for the safety and communication systems demands absolute reliability of system components for standard and custom-designed offerings. Keeping on the edge of manufacturing advancements, continually improving processes, and guaranteeing that equipment touting the newest technologies is on the shop floor are all key to Boyce Technologies’ production.
Add to those specifications the company’s drive to move production forward by experimenting and partnering with original equipment manufacturers, and you have a fertile environment for innovation. Fewer than two years ago most of the attention was focused on traditional fabricating and machining methods. Then additive manufacturing (AM) captured the shop floor’s attention.
“I had gone on record saying that there was nothing we couldn’t do on a CNC and that we would never have 3D printing in this company. Now we are looking at different kinds of 3D printing,” Charles Boyce, president, said. “It’s actually changing the way we think about how we are going to make production parts. We don’t know how to live without 3D anymore.”
He has even purchased equipment before the company has determined how it is going to be used.
“We chase technology and buy things we don’t need yet. I often get asked, ‘What do you want to do with this?’” Boyce said. “My answer is ‘I don’t know yet.’”
Printing Parts and More
3D printing isn’t replacing the traditional methods used to make the majority of components, but it is permeating the overall manufacturing process beginning with prototype production, the technology’s original niche.
“Even though we use very advanced solid modeling programs, unless you can touch something, spin it around, and for example see where a cable comes out of a connection, it’s difficult to be sure the part is going to do its job. Before investing a massive amount in the tooling and workholding involved with machining, we can 3D print and vet a part in a way that 2D modeling can’t,” Boyce said.
“We can enjoy and benefit from things you can see and feel. We’re printing almost anything that is new and will have a significant role in our products.”
Vigorous testing during development ensures that each component will be reliable. Printing a test part to act as a guinea pig during the design process saves both time and money.
Ajmal Aqtash, an AM advocate and director of advanced technologies for Boyce Technologies, said that the front end of 3D printing is in the development stage, the back end is in production, and the company uses it for both.
“On a typical day you can hear Charles say, ‘Let’s make this and see how quickly we can make it fail.’ We make the part fail, incorporate changes, print another version, and try to make it fail faster. 3D printing helps us compress the design, engineering, and testing time so we can get to production faster.”
Choosing When to Use AM
“Often we find ourselves using additive 5 to 10 percent of the time for prototyping and the other 85 to 90 percent for production. We have kind of inverted the use of this technology in this industry. Much like the vast majority of manufacturers, we were looking at it as prototyping equipment, but because of some customer and technology needs, we realized that it can be quite convenient for the production of certain organic parts that manage thermal forces,” Aqtash said.
“Nine out of 10 times the subtractive approach to part production is the best choice. Then there is that tenth instance where the ideal component has a shape that just cannot be machined.”
As an example, Aqtash referenced how AM is allowing the engineers to find ways to design components to redirect cooling and exhaust systems—particularly critical for the digital kiosks.
“The organic forms of our air handlers are a big area for our additive. These components often have to fit into tight spaces and mesh with other parts, and we still want to maximize space and air flow. They typically are nonstructural and today’s plastics work in these applications. Being able to print the parts, it has opened up the range of materials we can deploy for our products,” Aqtash added. “We build in tolerances so we can make adjustments to the printed parts and allow for postproduction machining.”
Production of housings for LED strips also are finding benefits from the 3D printing process.
“We can print a housing or framework to wrap around, support, and protect an LED strip. We go with plastic because it doesn’t interfere with the radio frequencies of the small antenna devices that are part of the systems,” Aqtash said.
“If a machining process is used, a block of ABS would be processed, and the LED strips would need to be inserted. With 3D printing, we create a series of profiles to hold the strips and the sensitive antenna equipment can be embedded in the part.”
A BigRep STUDIO, a fused filament fabricaiton industrial 3D system from BigRep America Inc., was the first piece of AM equipment at Boyce Technologies. The bio material typically used for its components can be printed at room temperature and doesn’t require an enclosed environment during the build. A fairly large part can be produced in the 3- by 1- by 1-meter print envelope or several smaller parts can be built during a run.
Boyce Technologies doubled its AM equipment count and significantly increased capacity by agreeing to serve as a beta site for a BigRep PRO. Designed for low-volume production, the new model has two extrusions heads that contribute to the 600-millimeter-per-second printing speed—five times faster than earlier printers, per the manufacturer. A 1-cubic-meter build envelope accommodates production of larger parts.
Frank Marangell, president of BigRep America, said the dual-head capacity is only part of the reason for the increased speed.
“In some equipment the extrusion speed was slowed down in an effort to control drool from the nozzle in corners or turns. This slowing is out of the picture with the new model. It uses a mechanical, metered extrusion mechanism located just before the nozzle to deposit the material on the bed. It can start and stop in a fraction of a second. This makes the process much faster and improves geometric accuracy.”
Collaborating to Grow Capabilities
Along with testing out the new equipment, the two companies are sharing another initiative: They are working together on the development of an extruder to be integrated with robotic printing of large-scale parts.
“We are working with BigRep’s New Lab in Brooklyn to develop the next iteration of the extruder. Right now, it works at a slower deposition rate but by using multi-tasking printing we are not limited to what can be done with the gantry. We start to print, stop to reorient the XYZ, then print at a different angle. This opens up a whole slew of different opportunities,” Aqtash said.
“Hopefully, in the near future we will actually move G-codes from printing a plastic or metal part to a subtractive robot for automated material removal and surface finishing.
“We also designed and engineered a 12- by 8-foot heated flatbed that allows us to generate the larger parts.”
Pushing the Process Forward
An interest in developing metal printing technologies was triggered by efforts to 3D print plastic injection molds. Aqtash said that current processes fall short in surface finish quality.
“We acquired an ABB robot integrated with a Fronius CMT [cold metal transfer] machine to 3D print using metal. Hardware alone won’t get us where we need to be so we are also working with software providers to create programs to direct building supports and parts, then remove the baseplate, while having the same G-code post-processor remove 0.005 inch of material for the finish,” Aqtash said.
“There are versions that have been developed for aerospace but they don’t have the combination of options we are interested in. It has to do with expedient, efficient part development where there is a superstructure within the part. First, you develop density much like our bones. Then do the surface quality with subtractive.
“Working with metals is a risky move so we are taking it in increments. If you can understand the automation of working with plastics, it helps you understand how to roll that information into working with metals.
“Much of what we do is still standardized. It’s one of those things where you need a part and you need it lighter to make it more efficient—that’s why this technology percolates. It’s finding the right tool for the job,” Aqtash said.
Boyce Technologies has every intention of continuing to work with other companies to develop and advance manufacturing technologies. Aqtash said, “You can do this kind of development on your own but it would take longer and you might not end up with the best approach.”
As far as what the next collaborative opportunity will be, it’s an unknown.
“I like to go down a path that might not have a destination,” Boyce said.
Contributing Editor Sue Roberts can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photos courtesy of Boyce Technologies.
BigRep America Inc., www.bigrep.us
Boyce Technologies, www.boycetechnologies.com