Tech at Work: 3D Printing
We spoke with Bob Zubrickie of TE Connectivity about the possibilities that lay ahead for 3D printing and additive manufacturing, as well as the role connector technology will play in future developments.
Q: What is additive manufacturing, and where is it in the development stage in general industry? How quickly will it come to full fruition and adoption, and what is necessary to make that happen?
A: Additive manufacturing is the ability to take and create something by putting materials together. Essentially, it goes a step further than 3D printing, allowing engineers to add things at every stage of the process, giving them the flexibility to customize the final product. Additive manufacturing allows for a level of customization that is difficult to achieve in regular manufacturing.
Additive manufacturing is a new and growing process within the realm of manufacturing. Over the years, engineers have used this technology to successfully print pizzas, chocolate bars, dresses, and even a flute and violin.
In order for wider adoption of additive manufacturing to take place, we need to continue educating current and future engineers. TE Connectivity is dedicated to sharing its wealth of knowledge about additive manufacturing, so engineers are properly trained on the design capabilities of this technology. As stated earlier, additive manufacturing allows for customized product development, so engineers need to know what design elements can be modified when printing to have similar outcomes.
Q: What is the history of TE’s 3D printing operation? How did TE go from being a component manufacturer to getting involved with 3D printing?
A: TE’s history with 3D printing started in 1987 with the company’s first 3D printer. This printer, located in North Carolina, made TE one of five companies to beta test this technology. Due to the success of this printer, TE purchased two more printers for our Pennsylvania location in 1988. Since then, TE continues to advance the capabilities of additive manufacturing, utilizing 3D printers for product design, industrial development, and mold design. These printers have become integral to the team’s work because they allow customers to provide feedback easily and to quickly adjust prototypes.
Moreover, co-creation with our customers is a crucial part of our business; we work closely with them to help solve their biggest problems. This involves custom designs as each customer has different needs. With additive manufacturing, our engineers have more freedom to test various ideas with quicker turnarounds. 3D printing allows not only design modeling but also the creation of fixturing and tools to help customers find solutions even faster than before. Further, 3D printing serves as an affordable option for initial product design testing, replacing the need for more costly materials for each and every iteration of the test designs.
Q: How do TE’s other areas of expertise, most notably connectors and sensors, play a role in the 3D printing endeavors?
A: Our expertise with connectors and sensors is a vital part of our 3D printing endeavors. We can utilize these technologies in new ways to open up previously unchartered territories in the industry.
TE’s innovation in signal connectors and components enables dependable performance in various industry applications. In terms of 3D printing, we produce connectors for flat flexible cable (FFC) that can be applied in 3D printers.
Inversely, 3D printing technology can completely alter the way products are designed and mass-produced. While 3D printing of connectors is not yet possible, this technology does enable the simulation of connectors, terminals, and other wiring harness components for testing.
3D printers now allow engineers to print high-tech, complex objects using an array of materials. The secret to building these high-tech objects via 3D printing is to embed electronics like sensors and switches, as the object is being printed. The addition of a functional element such as a sensor into a 3D printed object has the potential to open up entirely new markets and applications.
Q: What role do connectors play in additive manufacturing, and how does TE plan to develop that role?
A: As mentioned above, 3D-printed connectors play an integral simulation role in quicker testing, which in turn leads to bringing products to market quicker. We no longer have to create standard connectors for each product modeling.
TE hopes to eventually create functional sensors and connectors, and we are currently at the very early beta testing stages for this technology.
Q: How will 3D printing capabilities change/evolve the role of an OEM’s design engineer team?
A: The OEM’s design engineer team will be able to save on labor input, take on more complex, higher-skilled roles, and learn new technologies. Additive manufacturing will help speed up the experimentation process, enabling engineers to find solutions quicker and ultimately bring products to market faster.
Q: What are TE’s future plans for working in the 3D printing/additive manufacturing arena?
A: We’ve started pushing the boundaries of satellite 3D printing, which enables anyone in the world to send their designs to a specific 3D printer. No longer will 3D designs be limited to those who have a physical 3D printer.
In regards to TE’s business, we can now print designs directly to customers’ 3D printers. This technology is especially important for areas where stock is low. We can print directly to that location.
To further make fiction into reality, we hope to see cyber (cloud) 3D printing as well as hybrid 3D printing come to fruition. Cyber (cloud) 3D printing is where files are sent to the Cloud. From there, the information in the file can determine the recipient’s nearest location from which to print. With hybrid 3D printing, the same printer can print multiple technologies.
Q: Will we begin to see connectors that are produced through 3D printing?
A: As mentioned, this is a goal TE hopes to achieve. And in general, additive manufacturing continues to look promising for many aspects of TE’s portfolio.
For more information on TE’s 3D-printed motorcycle, click here.
Bob Zubrickie is senior manufacturing engineer at TE Connectivity.