Turning Metal Replacement Parts into Composite 3D Printed Material

The Chocolate Factory avoided costly machinery downtime by replacing metal parts with Stratasys high-performance composite 3D printed parts.

In a clear example of how the 3D printing industry is turning to quickly printed parts to replace parts that ordinarily require weeks to produce, the Dutch 3D service bureau Visual First used a Stratasys 3D printer to produce a replacement part for The Chocolate Factory’s packaging operation. Visual First used the Stratasys FDM Nylon 12CF carbon-filled thermoplastic to replace a metal machine part. The ability to create 3D-printed machinery replacement parts on-demand can significantly reduce machine downtime for manufacturers.

Stratasys, 3D printing, composites, replacement parts, Visual First, Chocolate Factory

This 3D printed replacement machine part was produced in Stratasys FDM Nylon 12CF thermoplastic containing 35% chopped carbon-fiber. (Image source: Stratasys)

FDM Nylon 12CF thermoplastic contains 35% chopped carbon-fiber and provides the level of strength and tolerance required to replace metal parts. Also, the replacement time for replacing this broken machine part was reduced from one month to one week by using additive manufacturing compared to the traditional handmade metal process.

The solution to the issue wasn’t just a matter of replacing a handmade metal part with the 3D printed part. The goal was to use new material that would result in a superior part that could be produced quickly. “The Chocolate Factory wanted to know if it was possible to use a 3D printed part to replace a metal part. The answer came down to finding the right material,” Carl van de Rijzen, owner of Visual First, told Design News. “At first, we started with simple materials, but they weren’t flexible enough. We went to Stratasys and explained the problem. They came up with the right material.”

Before landing on the right material, Stratasys and Visual First tried a number of solutions. “We sat in the office and talked about it,”  Nadav Sella, head of emerging business at Stratasys, told Design News. "The carbon material was too flexible, and another material wasn’t flexible enough. We came up with the FDM Nylon 12CF thermoplastic as the right material.”

Part Costs and Downtime Are the Big Issues

The Chocolate Factory runs a network of packaging machines, with the company’s daily throughput relying on the smooth operation of a simple, yet crucial, hook-shaped metal part that lifts wrapped bars onto a conveyer belt. A problem occurs when the part malfunctions—typically with such regularity that it necessitates replacement three times a month. As each replacement part is handmade, delivery can take over a month.

If a broken part can shut down production, it seems logical that you should stockpile the parts. It’s not that simple. “The part is too expensive to stockpile. It can’t be machined, and it is too exclusive to be mass produced,” said van de Rijzen.

When One Part Fails, Others Follow

Finding a superior material would solve a larger production issue than just one failed part. “The breakage or issue with the part is that sometimes there is a malfunction or misfeed in the chocolate bar wrapping line,” said Sella. “Maybe one bar slips on top of the other and the weight creates a situation where there was a lot of force on that part. It’s at a high-speed, so parts begin to break.”

When the part fails, it takes other parts down as well. The goal of finding a new material was to keep that from happening. “When the machine breaks down, it also damages other parts of the machine,” said van de Rijzen. “With the 3D printed part, when it breaks down, it doesn’t break the machine. It breaks differently so it doesn’t damage the machine.”

With a part that provides the right flexibility and is less likely to break—and when the breaks are less likely to damage other parts—The Chocolate Factory is looking to use 3D printing for other replacement parts. “With 3D printed molds created on the Fortus 450mc, the company will be able to further accelerate its production processes,” says van de Rijzen. “The most important thing is the production time.”

Following the success of the 3D printed replacement part, The Chocolate Factory is turning to Visual First to solve other design challenges—most notably, to develop a prototype casting mold to test acceptance of its products. Traditionally, this is made from plastic, which is both time-consuming and expensive.

Rob Spiegel has covered automation and control for 17 years, 15 of them for Design News. Other topics he has covered include supply chain technology, alternative energy, and cyber security. For 10 years, he was owner and publisher of the food magazine Chile Pepper.

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