How Is Caterpillar Moving Forward with AM?

Heavy equipment manufacturer Caterpillar has found numerous uses for additive manufacturing in its operations. Here are just a few applications the company has found.

Much of additive manufacturing’s appeal comes from the long-term promise of new products, new designs and new ways of thinking about production. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t practical, effective ways to put additive manufacturing to work right now, today. While additive manufacturing for large-scale production is a ways off for almost every manufacturer, current 3D printers are well-suited for many shopfloor applications, including creating tools, gages and other manufacturing aids.

This is the approach that heavy equipment manufacturer Caterpillar has taken in its Rapid Prototyping lab, founded in 1990. Though the company has a long-term interest in using additive to produce at least some parts for its dozers, excavators and other equipment, it is taking advantage of the technology right now to make practical shopfloor tools for its own employees. The lab, now a part of the newly formed Caterpillar Additive Manufacturing Group, uses additive processes such as FDM, stereolithography and SLS to produce gages, display and scale models, assembly fixtures, hand tools, and other functional pieces for use in its own facilities. Though these aren’t end-use products, the parts the lab produces offer returns in the form of decreased costs and reduced development time due to quicker iteration turnaround. Here are just three uses the lab has found for AM in Caterpillar’s operations:
 

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  • Gaging. Caterpillar has identified a number of gaging needs that can be met with custom gages 3D-printed out of plastics. For example, the company has produced field gages to measure the wear on tips, the consumable “teeth” found on the edge of an earthmover’s bucket. The gages have numbers printed directly into them, making it easy for an on-site technician to determine the level of wear on a tip. And according to Jim LaHood, Caterpillar engineering specialist for 3D printing, the plastic gages are just as accurate as metal gages and can be replaced more quickly when they wear out. A set of the field tip gages can be made overnight. They are printed in a stack of four nested together, using only $40-50 worth of plastic, for material as well as time savings. 
     
  • Molds. Caterpillar molds its own silicone masking in-house. The masking includes plugs and other shaped pieces of silicone to protect holes and pockets during processes such as powder coating. Previously, employees produced the masking on makeshift molds constructed of scrap metal. The molds were heavy and sharp, and known to fail frequently. The AM Group now offers the capability to create the molds out of polycarbonate rather than metal, resulting in lighter, more reliable molds. The lab estimates that this switch has saved $27,000 per year in repairs to molds.
     
  • Production models. Caterpillar has found value in producing 3D-printed models of parts to optimize its systems before production begins in earnest. In one example, the company created 36 ABS polycarbonate models of large forged track links (components of the chain-like link assembly found on track-type machines like dozers) in various sizes to use for machine setup and CMM programming. Normally workers would need to use heavy wood models or wait for the foundry parts themselves to arrive to perform these setup tasks. With the plastic models, employees were able to work on fixturing and CMM applications before the forged parts arrived, saving time. Completing these tasks with the lightweight ABS models was made easier by eliminating the handling of heavier parts, and also protected the production parts from damage. The company estimates that it saved $160,000 in time and labor by making this switch.