By Ed Szykula
Automotive companies today are constantly seeking to improve vehicle operating efficiency and thus improve fuel efficiency, especially in light of the ongoing upward climb in gas prices. Improving efficiency, however, is no longer easy because the low-hanging fruit has already been picked. So, in pursuit of this goal, automakers and major auto suppliers are increasingly turning to tech-savvy partners to help them turn innovative ideas into reality.
This was the situation recently when an axle manufacturer partnered with 3-Dimensional Services of Rochester Hills, MI, on an innovative new testing device.
3-Dimensional Services is a firm that specializes in the design, engineering and analysis, in-house tool construction, and complete build of prototype first-off parts and low- to medium-volume production runs. Its use of advanced process methods, manufacturing technologies and staff talents means that prototype parts are typically provided faster than conventionally equipped prototype shops are able to offer "sometimes as much as 70% faster.
In this instance, 3-Dimensional was asked to focus its various areas of expertise on a transfer case oil flow testing system for a new axle design for cars and light trucks.
“When our customer creates a new axle design, they’ve got to make sure that the actual oil flow within the transfer case is what they envisioned it to be,” says Scott Duffie, senior sales engineer for 3-Dimensional. “This is a key aspect of efficient operation for the axle and, ultimately, for the vehicle itself.”
To test that, they create a prototype of the new transfer case and cycle oil through it during test bed operation.
“Typically, this part would be a casting,” notes Duffie, adding that despite today’s sensor technology, it is still tough to see what’s happening on the other side of a cast iron wall. To get a better understanding of how the new design actually performed, he says, the axle manufacturer opted to go with a clear plastic transfer case prototype.
Starting with SLA
First, 3-Dimensional created a master pattern using stereolithography (SLA). Based on the part’s CAD design, the SLA’s laser beam cures light-sensitive polymers into the shape of the part. This, by the way, is one of three rapid prototyping technologies that can be deployed by 3-Dimensional, depending on the nature of the project "the others being selective laser sintering (SLS) and metal laminating.
Note that for many applications, the SLA prototype is sufficient. 3-Dimensional’s intimate knowledge of the technology, however, led its team to conclude that for this application, a tougher, more resilient prototype than could be created with SLA was required. Thus, the SLA master pattern was used to create a silicone tool.
Before that could happen, though, the master pattern had to be hand-polished to a mirror finish. This was to ensure that the resulting tool, and thus the eventual prototype, would be left with no surface finish defects that could impede smooth oil flow or viewing.
The polishing entailed wet sanding, alternating with a painting technique that 3-Dimensional employs in these cases.
“The painting technique helps us identify surface areas that might be suspect and thus require more attention,” explains Duffie. He notes that while most of 3-Dimensional’s operations involve an array of high-tech tools, this part is an instance of old-style craftsmanship.
“It’s an art,” Duffie admits. “Once that tooling is complete, then we’ll close it all off and pour urethane into it. After 24 hours of cure, we pull the tool apart and we’re left with the prototype.”
Well, almost. First, 24 helicoils (threads) had to be inserted. These provided the means to attach the transfer case to the rest of the prototype axle, so that realistic cycling tests could be run. The part’s mating surfaces were machined flat on a mill; pilot holes were drilled into the urethane, then a tap was run. Into these drilled and tapped holes the helicoils were inserted on a computed numerically controlled (CNC) vertical milling center. These strong steel threads would enable the customer’s engineers to assemble and disassemble the part as many times as they saw fit.
There was no question of the part having to wait for a machine to become available: 3-Dimensional has more than 40 CNC machining centers, along with 75 knee mills and lathes, so neither machining capacity nor machining expertise was an issue.
“The entire operation took just three weeks,” says Duffie. In that length of time, 3-Dimensional provided a tough, clear transfer case prototype in which the team could see and study every aspect of oil flow under a variety of conditions.
Unexpectedly, though, they were also provided with an improvement on their original design.
“There were some strengthening ribs in their original design that our analysis concluded were not necessary "and would, in fact, inhibit the viewing of smooth oil flow,” Duffie recalls. “They let us eliminate them and, after their subsequent testing, were pleased with the result.”
The 3-Dimensional Services Group, consisting of 3-Dimensional Services, Urgent Plastic Services and Urgent Design & Manufacturing, provides rapid prototyping services that allow them to design, engineer and build functional prototype parts and low- to medium-volume production parts from 50% to 70% faster than conventional prototype shops. Their capabilities encompass virtually all relevant processes, including injection molding and casting, stamping, CNC machining, robotic and manual welding, laser cutting and welding, waterjet, hydroforming, tube bending, vibration welding, casting and pattern fabrication, RIM tooling, SLA, laminated object manufacturing (LOM) and SLS rapid prototyping, and assembly.
Ed Szykula is with Kracoe Szykula & Townsend, Inc., a marketing communications firm. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.