3D Printing and Root-Cause Analysis Improve Machine Uptime

3D printing with metals and other materials is giving new life to old machines and improving newer equipment’s performance.

By Kevin T. Higgins, Managing Editor

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“Built like a tank” is a compliment when it comes to machines and equipment, and the typical food plant has enough “tanks” to equip the 1st Armored Division.

Durability usually isn’t an issue with food machinery, but age and downtime can spell an end to its useful life. Studies suggest compounded costs of 18 to 25 percent per year are incurred when inventorying replacement parts. That’s a big disincentive for both OEMs and distributors to stock replacement parts and components, particularly for older machinery. As a consequence, food manufacturers can be forced to retire otherwise functional machinery because needed components are unavailable.

The solution lies with 3D printing, believes Peer Munck, founder and CEO of 3Discovered, a Chicago start-up that bills itself as an “online exchange platform to facilitate the buying, selling and fabricating of commercial-grade, 3D printed parts.” Munck’s firm is stitching together a global network of 200 print shops that can execute 3D designs for needed components.

Once considered exotic, 3D printing is on the brink of mainstream, with costs plummeting and material options expanding. Thermoplastics, stainless steel, titanium and more than 100 other materials can be used as the materials of construction. United Parcel Service plans on installing polymer 3D printers in 100 locations, and Munck’s firm hopes to include them in its fabrication network. “Think of it as 3D Kinkos,” he jokes.

Almost a third of the output of industrial 3D printers is finished, functional parts, he estimates. In select cases, a part superior to the original can be fabricated at a fraction of the cost.

3Discovered’s mechanical engineers recently were asked to come up with an end cover for an electric motor mounted in a hydraulic robotic-arm assembly. The engineers determined that the original plastic cover became brittle over time from exposure to oil. A cover with identical dimensions was printed and electroplated to avoid a similar failure.

“There are many shapes you can make that you cannot do in a foundry or with a 5-axis CNC machine,” notes Munck. “You can create a better, lighter, cheaper part.”

3Discovered’s first client was Advanced Technology Services Inc., a Peoria, Ill.-based firm that provides factory maintenance and IT services to 150 manufacturers. Both ATS and 3Discovered are targeting food and beverage companies.

Failed part forensics

Aging machinery and in-house staffing shortages make food manufacturing fertile ground for maintenance, repair and operations (MRO) assistance. In Food Processing’s annual Manufacturing Outlook Survey, 21.5 percent of food professionals indicated some or all maintenance services are outsourced at their plants.

Asset reliability is central to ATS’s services, and reliability begins with MRO crib management and extends to repairable parts management and tracking of all maintenance procedures. Failed part forensics is done each time a machine goes off line. “Our reliability process begins with gathering information about the root causes and then doing something about it,” according to Dave Gill, director-IPS (industrial parts services) for site operations.

“Our mission is to reduce failures and downtime with reliability,” adds Gill. “By aligning with the customer’s goals, we’re engineering or repairing ourselves out of a job.”

High-pressure washdowns often cause equipment failures in food plants. Rather than accept it as an unavoidable consequence of good sanitation, Gill’s colleagues determine if moisture is, indeed, the cause, then devise a solution. With electronics, heat may be the real issue. Fluorescent backlighting in HMI panels sometimes turns out to be the cause of failure, he says. Converting to LED backlighting has resolved the issue in some applications, says Gill.

Cycle counts and other failure factors should be monitored by parts crib personnel, but “they don’t always have the time to focus on best practices,” he says. Supplementing in-house personnel with a specialist in MRO crib management can boost machine uptime and reduce replacement-parts costs.

PepsiCo and other food companies are turning to total productive manufacturing (TPM) to improve reliability by shifting basic maintenance, lubrication and machine-cleaning responsibilities to line operators, a strategy Gill endorses. Light curtains often fail because of accumulated dirt, not electrical or other issues. By shifting routine cleaning to an operator instead of maintenance, reliability improves. “It seems pretty simple,” he says, “but it works.”

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