3-D Printing Called Threat to Metalworking Fluids


COLORADO SPRINGS, Colorado – From electric vehicles to digitalization, there is no shortage of technologies and trends cited by analysts the past couple years as potential threats to the lubricants industry. Digital manufacturing could be the biggest, according to Cullen Hilkene, CEO of a company that employs that technology, 3Diligent.

Speaking at the Independent Lubricant Manufacturers Association‘s annual meeting here last month, Hilkene called 3-D printing a budding industry that could significantly lessen and eventually eliminate the need for metalworking fluids.

The 3-D printing name is a catch-all term that encompasses a variety of additive manufacturing processes. More specifically, it is a layer-wise manufacturing process driven by computer-aided design software. Hilkene said this means that the process starts with a design on a software program in three dimensions. “That design is then exported in an STL file …. That, in turn, is sliced.” STL is a type of file created specifically to store this type of data and which interacts with 3-D printers.

Hilkene continued, “Those sliced layers then provide the blueprint for the additive manufacturer [3-D printer] to say this is where I put down material; this is where I don’t. Ultimately, that build takes place in a layer-wise fashion, one layer at a time until you have an end use part.”

The technology has been around since the 1980s, but it wasn’t until the 2010s that several patents expired, leading to what Hilkene referred to as the Maker Movement, which achieved several key advancements in 3-D printing. These advancements spurred a significant amount of nearly unfounded hype that created unrealistic expectations of 3-D printing’s actual capabilities. These machines were not capable of making everything. They’re not alchemy boxes. “You take an input of a material; it comes out in the same material,” Hilkene explained.

However, 3-D printing continued to advance in the industrial sphere. The heavier-duty systems were really capable of delivering higher quality parts. This ability led to the next phase of the technology, which Hilkene referred to as production 3-D printing, implying the rise of fast and production-viable machines.

While manufacturers are excited about the progression of 3-D printing, it does potentially pose a threat to the metalworking fluids market because it has several advantages over traditional manufacturing processes. For example, complexity in 3-D printing doesn’t cost more. Hilkene explained that the printer still has to go through the same layer, still has to lay down material where its supposed to go and not where it doesn’t, so more complex designs don’t cost more than relatively simple ones. This differs from traditional manufacturing processes where adding additional passes often drives up production time as well as costs.

Three-D printing offers other benefits, too. For example, the process reduces waste. “Only material that is needed is used during 3-D printing, while other, more traditional metalworking processes often use greater amounts of material to create the same product,” Hilkene said. The 3-D printing process is heavily automated, meaning that it requires relatively low labor input, which can ultimately cut down on manufacturers expenses as well.

Hilkene emphasized that 3-D printing also allows for rapid iteration. It is relatively quick and easy to develop a CAD file, print a product, test it, get a sense of whether its going to serve your needs or not, identify some opportunities for improvement, tweak the CAD file accordingly, and do it all over again until a usable product is synthesized. Size is no longer a limiting factor for 3-D printing, either. Historically, the misconception was that 3-D printing is more or less only useful for producing small parts, but the technology has progressed to a point where it can make large and small products alike.

Metalworking fluids suppliers may not need not to worry just yet. As far as 3-D printing technology has come in recent years, its capabilities are still relatively limited and often pale in comparison to more traditional manufacturing processes.

Hilkene cited examples of shortcomings, stating that the layer-wise process that 3-D printing utilizes will never be economically advantageous for many types of geometries and that many systems do not provide the production-level reliability that todays industry demands. In addition, input material costs for 3-D printing are currently quite high and the library of usable material incomplete. He stated that the range of materials that 3-D printers can process is not really limited, but certain materials are not completely compatible. He cited Aluminum 6061 and 7075, both well-known castable alloys.

Issues with the rapid heating and cooling cycles occur during printing, which can lead to the material cracking.

“In those cases, it has something to do with the oxide layer created with the layer-wise process,” he said.

He noted that post-processing is required for most 3-D printed products. They usually don’t come out of the printer ready to use. Hilkene stated that 3-D printed parts have a bit of roughness. This roughness of printed products points back to a need for metalworking to produce an end use product.

“Although 3-D printing technology is rapidly growing and improving, it still constitutes only a small portion of the global manufacturing market – about $16 billion of a total $12 trillion global manufacturing market,” Hilkene stated.