Additive Manufacturing Supports Fire Protection
What is additive manufacturing?
Additive manufacturing is what most people would refer to as 3D printing; it is also called rapid prototyping. There are many types of additive manufacturing, with Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) and Stereolithography (SLA) being the most common for both hobbyists and businesses. The idea of 3D printing has been around for many decades, but only recently has it become a technology for everyone with smaller, more affordable machines.
Many thousands of households are now using them to create toys for their kids or face shields for medical workers fighting the lingering COVID-19 pandemic. What most people don’t realize is the impact it has had on manufacturing, especially in the manufacture of fire protection products. Rapid prototyping is now used to create molds for iron, brass, and numerous other metals quickly and affordably. Components that historically took weeks or months to create, can now be produced over just a few days. Not only have 3D printing machines changed, so has the material that can be printed on these fascinating machines with relative ease. Materials such as carbon fiber, wood, and even metal can now be printed with relative ease. There are 3D printers that can print affordable houses out of concrete in a few short days or print custom medical devices for patients. There are even designs for 3D printers that can print with dust on Mars for producing items colonists may need if humans were to ever settle there. The possibilities are endless with additive manufacturing technology.
So how does it work?
First, before a mold or part can be produced it needs to be drawn on modeling software. Many types of software can be used, some are so advanced it can take years to learn thoroughly or there are free versions online that school-age children can use. Once the model is created, it is then sent to what is called slicing software. This software does exactly what it sounds like. It slices a 3D model into layers that are converted into code that the 3D printer reads to tell it what to do.
In going from a model to a physical product, there are a couple of options. FDM printing is the most used form of 3D printing. It begins with a filament that is extruded through a heated nozzle onto a heated bed. This melted material is extruded layer by layer until it becomes what was designed on the modeling software. Affordable printing plastics and inexpensive machines have made FDM printing the favorite among hobbyists and professionals alike. The second most popular form of 3D printing is SLA, which instead of extruding plastic like FDM, it uses lasers to cure a bed of liquid resin into the model created. This form of additive manufacturing can produce higher resolution prints than FDM in various materials but requires messy chemicals for postprocessing.
One massive advantage to manufacturers of fire protection products using additive manufacturing is in producing prototypes for new product development. That is why 3D printing is commonly referred to as rapid prototyping. As a result, products can now be introduced in record time with significantly lower development costs than in years past.
In addition to prototypes that can be introduced more quickly, 3D printed tools can also make custom products. Fire hydrant bonnet top iron molds have been created with a city’s seal or with a city’s most famous landmark. Things as insignificant as promotional items for trade shows or a coworker’s retirement party can be created on a computer then printed in colorful plastic or turned into a mold that can create art in iron.
Prototyping is not the only benefit of using additive manufacturing. The advancements in 3D printing now allow large scale molding tools to be designed, manufactured, and printed on location, reducing costs and time to market for large size valves, fire hydrant parts, or other components. This technology has also allowed for low quantity parts, obsolete parts, or custom parts to be printed in-house without the need for expensive permanent tooling to be manufactured. This is extremely important for the fire hydrant industry in which products are expected to last more than fifty years, and in many cases significantly longer. Utilities are regularly looking for parts for very old fire hydrants that may be installed in historical districts or busy downtowns that they cannot easily and cost-effectively replace. This is where 3D printing has helped both manufacturers and utilities alike. Instead of obsoleting repair parts in which the molds or parts are no longer available, manufacturers can now print the molds to produce low quantity parts without purchasing expensive tooling.
Since the COVID-19 days began in early 2020, many in the fire protection industry are aware of the difficulty of getting materials for construction. This is no different for the manufacturing side of things either and additive manufacturing has also been able to assist with this problem. CNC machines, custom assembly machines, and any other machine that creates parts for fire protection products will need to be repaired from time to time and getting these parts can be difficult. 3D printers now have the capability to print small metal components like gears or custom fittings that can reduce downtime for these vital machines. Strong plastic parts can also be printed that can save weeks and months of headache for manufacturers. These parts can be printed with identical strength and dimensions as the replacement parts coming from the manufacturer.
Repair parts can be challenging to acquire, but so are the components for the products themselves. Additive manufacturing has shown the potential to make high quality, high strength plastic production components as well. However, additive manufacturing is still slower than traditional production methods like blow and injection molding of plastic parts. That is why it is currently only being used to fill supply chain gaps or for low-volume components for most manufacturers. But who knows what the future holds for additive manufacturing, advancements are happening daily and in just a few short years parts may be produced on these machines in large volumes? Maybe someday municipalities will have their own machines to produce replacement parts as needed.
Additive manufacturing has come a long way in the last decade and the next decade is likely to bring even more fascinating advancements. It is exciting to think about what the future may hold for this technology. For now, producing iron molding tools, repair parts, and even making custom fire hydrant components, additive manufacturing has positively impacted the fire protection industry and is likely to continue doing so.
Author: Patrick Nein, Product Manager for Mueller Water Products