3-D Printers Show Unlimited Potential

by Luke Jones  on Monday, Feb. 4, 2013 12:00 am  

Sci-fi writer Arthur C. Clarke famously wrote, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Placing a blank square into a metal box, then pulling out a fully formed three-dimensional object certainly sounds like magic, but it’s most assuredly real, and it’s changed the way the manufacturing world works.

The technology is, of course, 3-D printing — an unfortunate name for a fascinating process in which thin layers of precisely placed plastic filaments are built up one at a time to create an object from what was just an idea designed on a computer. (Click here to read how it works.)

One of the first companies in Arkansas to use it was NAMJet LLC of Benton. Since buying the printer, the company has shaved off hundreds of hours of labor by replacing handmade molds and parts with printed ones.

Len Hill founded the company in 1986 after purchasing the rights to some water jet products from the Jacuzzi family.

The company then went on to design a slow-speed jet with high pulling power, now called the Traktor Jet. NAMJet sells this and other products mostly overseas and in Alaska, typically to fishermen to use on high-powered skiffs. Hill said sales were close to $3 million last year, and the production schedule for 2013 is already full.

About eight years ago, Hill started looking into 3-D printing to simplify the company’s manufacturing process. At the time, test models were made by hand out of aluminum.

“That would eat up the time of the most experienced craftsman we had in the fabrication area and take him away from production,” Hill said. “When we found out we could make models by drawing and printing them, rather than doing them by hand, it opened up all kinds of possibilities.”

Back then, the technology was barely known.

“When we bought it, the only one we could look at in state was at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville’s engineering department,” he said. “We bought one of the same model they had.”

The machine cost about $24,000. The cost, however, was quickly recovered in production time. A model of an impeller — essentially the propeller in a water jet — for example, had vanes twisted at a certain angle that normally would need to be beaten and bent precisely, then welded to an aluminum test piece.

“To machine that, you could be taking 40 hours from your best-skilled man,” Hill said.

But the same part could be printed in several segments over about a third of that time, and if any of the segments came out wrong, it could easily be re-printed.



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