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4 Innovations That Are Changing Metalworking

Grainger Editorial Staff

Innovations in metalworking technology can add new capabilities to your maintenance and repair operations. These tools can make your team’s machinists more versatile and quicker, allowing them to tackle a broader range of maintenance issues. A new generation of technology can give your team the ability to fabricate more components in-house, predict problems, and practice new skills in a virtual world. These metalworking innovations could potentially reduce production downtime and cut your reliance on outside contractors. 

While the maintenance shop may not seem like the first place to invest in cutting-edge technology, new maintenance metalworking technologies hold tremendous potential. Emerging fields like additive manufacturing (3D printing), multiprocess welders, predictive maintenance, and augmented reality training can expand your in-house capabilities, helping your crew act quickly to keep the production line running. 

1. 3D printing reduces complicated fabrication to a single step. Over the past decade, the capabilities of 3D printers have dramatically expanded. No longer confined to prototyping jobs, today’s additive manufacturing machines can rapidly produce custom parts from durable materials including steel, aluminum, carbon fiber, and nylon. According to industrial software publisher AMFG, 3D printing can bring numerous strengths to maintenance and repair operations:

  • 3D printers can create intricate parts directly from a CAD drawing, eliminating the need for numerous lathe and mill setups.
  • GrabCad Software advises using 3D printing to create precision press-fit interfaces. The extremely tight tolerances used in additive manufacturing can create seamless interfaces between parts, allowing you to build precisely fitted replacement components like aluminum-butted graphite rods or carbon fiber panels with threaded steel grommets.
  • According to AMFG, one of 3D printing’s greatest advantages is the ability to consolidate complex parts. A single 3D printed component can replace a complicated assembly with one solid piece of material. For components with tight-fitting collars or flanges, this can distribute stress and reduce failure points.
  • Industrial Laser Solutions Magazine reports that the emerging technology of laser cladding can enable the restoration of worn components prior to failure. These machines deposit a precise accretion of material onto an existing component, without the high temperatures required for welding. For example, laser cladding can restore chipped teeth on a worn drive sprocket, bringing the component back into spec without milling a replacement gear.

Ultimately, the addition of a 3D printer to your maintenance metalworking shop can reduce uncertainty. You won’t have to worry about the complex process of milling oddly shaped components or making asymmetrical brackets. If the part can be drawn in CAD, it can be printed in a matter of hours.

2. Augmented reality keeps welding skills sharp. It can be hard to stay sharp as a welder if you don’t have an opportunity for regular practice, but a maintenance machinist may not get a lot of opportunities to get out the torch and maintain/learn several different welding processes. Practicing for the sake of practice can get expensive: it consumes metal, wire, gas and electrodes, and requires a good deal of space. If you’re practicing solo, it can be difficult to judge your own work or identify weaknesses in your technique.

According to Welding Productivity Magazine, augmented reality training systems like Miller Weld’s AugmentedArc can let your maintenance crew perfect their welding technique without consuming materials or creating a safety cordon. A virtual reality headset overlays a simulated weld onto the training equipment, based on the angle, distance, and speed that the practice electrode and wire are moving across the workpieces. 

Most importantly, augmented reality training provides instant feedback as the welder practices their craft. Instead of trial and error, the welder can make immediate corrections to their form to ensure a consistent bead and penetration of the workpiece. The user is scored accordingly and areas of needed improvement are highlighted, and documented for review..

3. Artificial intelligence predicts failure points. According to Towards Data Science Magazine, machine learning software can help your team go beyond preventive maintenance by integrating real-time data from thousands of sensors embedded throughout the plant. AI uses algorithms to find patterns and predict mechanical failures before they happen. 

Instead of simply scheduling maintenance procedures in accordance with preset intervals, a machine learning system can weigh thousands of data points to prioritize maintenance jobs and reduce failure risks. Machinery connected through an Internet of Things (IoT) platform sends a constant stream of data, tracking everything from the speed of a conveyor belt drive gear to the temperature and vibration levels inside an electric spindle motor. 

An AI algorithm can find unexpected patterns in the data: for example, the rising temperature inside a motor housing could indicate friction from an unlubricated pulley at another location in the machine. By connecting past trends with maintenance needs, the computer can schedule an inspection of suspected problems before they reach a failure point.

4. Multiprocess welders combine versatility and portability. Welding Insider profiles a new generation of multiprocess welders that can take the place of three or more welding machines, combining TIG, MIG, stick, flux, and even plasma cutting capabilities. Their light weight and dual voltage options allow repairs to be made virtually anywhere inside the plant. 

Investments in new technologies could reduce downtime. New metalworking technologies can be expensive, and training maintenance staff to use high-tech equipment requires a long-term commitment. But the costs of upgrading need to be weighed against the potential downside. Efficient Plant Magazine estimates that unplanned downtime can cut a typical plant’s revenues by up to 3 percent, once the cost of lost production, capital investment, and repair bills are added up. 

Innovative metalworking technologies may never fully eliminate downtime. But giving your maintenance team more tools and better training promises to reduce repair times and potentially address problems before they bring production to a halt.

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The information contained in this article is intended for general information purposes only and is based on information available as of the initial date of publication. No representation is made that the information or references are complete or remain current. This article is not a substitute for review of current applicable government regulations, industry standards, or other standards specific to your business and/or activities and should not be construed as legal advice or opinion. Readers with specific questions should refer to the applicable standards or consult with an attorney.

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