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25 Years of Caterpillar Additive Manufacturing: The Journey Continues

25 Years of Caterpillar Additive Manufacturing: The Journey Continues

“And I get paid for this!”

The words of a famous athlete, talking about his good fortune just for playing a game? A movie star extolling the rewards of a career portraying someone else?

No, this is simply my everyday thought as I walk into work for another interesting day with additive manufacturing at Caterpillar Inc.’s Additive Manufacturing Group. We strive to make the technology known around the company, educating, learning, and sharing as we go forward.

Caterpillar has seen rapid prototyping supply over 50,000 models to engineers and designers for fit-ups, casting aids, design verification, and display models since 1990. In recent years, with the rise of the “innovation culture,” 3D printing enabled us to break out of those traditional areas with color, new materials, and new processes. Today, additive manufacturing is making huge strides through our factories in the form of tooling, gaging, fixturing, and any application our hungry eyes can identify next, not to mention a perfect way to deal with low-volume production. Despite the different descriptors, they’re essentially the same amazing technology that captivated our hearts the first time we saw it.

We want to get Caterpillar facilities involved in additive manufacturing, so the Additive Manufacturing Group has a stable of relatively portable printers to loan out for several months at a time, in what's called the Nomad program. It’s exciting to deliver a printer to a factory, bring users up to speed, and watch what happens next. The ideas virtually flow out of the woodwork. Solutions that have been elusive become clear.

The utilization of multiple iterations becomes a viable option, rather than a time-constrained impossibility. New production aid tools, never before thought of, come to life to reduce operator fatigue, plus there are molds, masking, patterns, prototypes -- the list goes on.

Of course, you have to provide justification, project by project, as to why it is a no-brainer to make AM a daily activity in your process. This is the best way to prove to those in your organization that AM works -- not by going head-to-head with traditional manufacturing by comparing build times and material cost, but by documenting time and labor saved on everyday activities, enabling iterations and improving safety, and applying an honest dollar value to these parameters. Thus, justification consists of both oimproved operations and the value of “not being able to do that before.”

In addition to 3D printers, we also have a group of hand-held scanners to loan out.

And there’s new territory to blaze: designs free of manufacturing restrictions; the “re-engineering” of engineering design. This is the mental counterpart of a physical walk-through a plant looking for AM applications; simply put, the new way to think about designing.

Those of us fortunate enough to work in this ever-changing, speed-of-light industry are witnessing a technological paradigm shift every day, as we walk to our desks thinking, “And I get paid for this!”

I will be giving a presentation entitled “Additive Manufacturing at Caterpillar” on these applications, and more, on Wednesday, Oct. 7 at 11:05 a.m., at Design & Manufacturing Philadelphia, a Design News event at the Pennsylvania Convention Center. Please plan to attend — I look forward to telling you about it.



Jim LaHood has had 13 years of 3D printing experience at three companies. He has been instrumental in creating awareness and implementing 3D printing at Caterpillar. Currently, Jim manages a program in which printers are loaned out to the company's manufacturing facilities and takes part in plant walk-throughs to discover new applications for 3DP. Jim has a BSME degree from the University of Illinois.

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