Why you should care
Because when man and machine combine, what they can make is unstoppable.
OZY and GE are partnering to bring you an inside look into how additive manufacturing is changing the way things are made across industries and across the world.
Some experts are hailing 3D printing as the next industrial revolution — cutting the carbon emissions and costs of almost everything we make. But in Kariwa, Japan, a tiny coastal village around 180 miles north of Tokyo, they still believe man can outsmart machine.
“3D printing does not make everything possible,” says Eiji Mitsuhashi, an industrial designer at the Kariwa Plant who is responsible for producing valves to transport oil and gas. The smarts of designers like Mitsuhashi have put this unlikely spot right at the forefront of 3D printing, because they’ve realized the new technology works best with a human touch.
“There are things that can only be done by the human hand,” elaborates Mitsuhashi, who has been experimenting with additive manufacturing ever since GE, which acquired the plant in 2011, started testing 3D printers there in 2013. The idea was that 3D printing could simplify the incredibly complex production of the factory’s special control valves.
Mitsuhashi found that 3D-printing plastic prototypes of the valves streamlined and sped up the production process, but once he switched to metal, the parts weren’t coming out as perfect as they should have been — instead carrying annoying deficiencies, like burrs in holes. The factory’s machinists could produce precision-perfect parts and were able to deliver 100 times more precision than the 3D printer — impressive given the printer could only achieve accuracies of up to about .1 millimeter.
Through years of experience, I can tell an error of about one one-thousandth of a millimeter by how it feels in my hand.
Technician, Kariwa Plant
“Through years of experience, I can tell an error of about one one-thousandth of a millimeter by how it feels in my hand,” one Kariwa technician said. Seems there’s no real replacement for decades of hard-won, fine-tuned skill. Or is there?
Mitsuhashi’s bright idea has been to use the learned skills of his machinists to inform and optimize designs for the 3D printer. By combining the best of both man and machine, he’s solving one of the biggest problems posed by 3D printing in its early years — the need for labor- and time-intensive post-processing work. Surface finishing, for example, is so far proving to be one of the most time-consuming parts of post-processing required by 3D printing, and can lead to damage of, or inconsistencies between, finished parts. Kinda takes the shine off this radical new technology, right? So minimizing, or, better, eliminating post-processing work is absolutely key to making 3D printing function on the grand, game-changing scale it could.
Not only that, but businesses could quickly become intolerant of the technology’s shortcomings if they’re not soon resolved. Other additive manufacturing companies have admitted that early adopters were tolerant because the tech was new and bumps were to be expected. But 3D printing has been around for a while now, and organizations newly taking up the technology will be expecting to see the right results for their investment.
In far-flung Kariwa, Mitsuhashi and friends didn’t want to give up on 3D printing — the benefits of the technology were too great. The valves’ design includes an array of small holes and flow channels, which had been difficult to make and needed to be assembled from many parts.
“Existing methods require processes such as brazing or assembling multiple components to produce complex shapes,” Mitsuhashi explains. “The metal 3D printer allows us to make a single component, simplifying the process and dramatically increasing what we can do.” So far, it has helped cut the time it takes to make certain parts from two months to two weeks.
Imagine, then, what 3D printing could achieve at the plant once perfected. And it’s for that reason Mitsuhashi has brought his craftsmen to the design table. “They show designers where our blind spots are or provide us with hints for making the products even better,” Mitsuhashi explains. The real industrial revolution, then? If the Kariwa Plant is anything to go by, it’s all about figuring out how to combine the best of people and printers.
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