Caterpillar Leader Urges, Embrace AM for the Right Reasons

FOMO—fear of missing out—is not the right reason. Valid reasons to 3D print relate to cost or time saving and delivering value.


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Caterpillar is ascending a company-wide learning curve with 3D printing, says Stacey DelVecchio, the company’s additive manufacturing product manager. Realizing the many opportunities and benefits of the technology will take time, she says, and will come from employees engaging with the technology. To that end, the company has equipped engineering teams with desktop 3D printers; invested in “nomadic” industrial 3D printers that manufacturing groups can borrow for months at a time; and, most recently, opened an Additive Manufacturing Factory near its Peoria headquarters. She discussed all of this in a presentation at the most recent Additive Manufacturing Conference.

Part of what Caterpillar has learned is something basic, she says. Company engineering and manufacturing leaders have become aware of the right reasons and the wrong reasons to pursue AM.

There are a number of wrong reasons. Perhaps chief among them is FOMO, the fear of missing out. Not all manufacturing applications can benefit from 3D printing, so the fact that the technology is receiving significant attention and acclaim is no reason by itself to invest in it.

She says another wrong reason is the hope of winning cost savings in the next year or two. The learning curve is long with AM, in part because design engineers and manufacturing engineers have to rethink many assumptions in order to use it effectively. Payback is long as well, particularly for systems able to make production parts in metal.

But there are just as many valid reasons to employ AM, and these have come to define the company’s focus. One is the potential to deliver product or supply chain value. That is, additive can enable improvements in part design, and can also enable improvements in the logistics of part production. Another valid reason is the opportunity to reduce product development cycles and capital expenditures, through the use of short-run production without any need for tooling as a way to test and refine a new part design or serve a limited need.