TE expands 3-D printing in hopes of reaching mass production
Electronic-parts maker TE Connectivity Ltd. depends on new products to drive about 20 percent of its annual net sales, which totaled $14 billion last year.
Bob Zubrickie, a manufacturing engineer for TE in Dauphin County, is well aware of the figures – and his role in bringing new products to market.
He and his team develop those products using a tool that for many manufacturers is still relatively new: 3-D printing.
It is not so new for TE, the Switzerland-based company that has numerous offices and production facilities around the Harrisburg area.
TE has been investing in 3-D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, since 1987.
Other manufacturers are coming around to the technology, which promises to lower costs and boost efficiency. The International Data Corp. projects worldwide spending on 3-D printing will hit $13.8 billion this year and could grow to nearly $23 billion by 2022.
“In the world of manufacturing, the common phrase used is ‘we’re trying to make it better, faster and cheaper to stay ahead of the competition.’ Now it’s also more innovative,” said John Lloyd, president and CEO of York-based Mantec Inc., a resource center that works with manufacturers to adapt to changing markets.
Lloyd said companies of all sizes, not just the larger firms like TE, can also use 3-D printers to increase the pace of testing alternative materials for production.
“Experimenting is critical,” he said. “When effectively used, it is increasing speed and cost, but also enabling new products. If one gains market acceptance, it increases sales for the company.”
'Morph into something better'
Zubrickie oversees one of four TE prototyping centers, where the company tests new designs for tools and product concepts. The company also has centers in Asia, Europe and California.
The Harrisburg center, at TE’s Fulling Mill Road campus in Lower Swatara Township, was the first and uses seven types of 3-D printing machines, which come in different sizes and use different materials.
Employees run the machines around the clock to create specialized jigs and fixtures used to guide and hold tools for production workers. The machines also print 3-D samples, or prototypes, of product designs that may lead to finished parts.
Last year, the midstate testing center produced 35,000 parts, the most it has ever made in a year, Zubrickie said.
The 3-D printers start with a digital image and build physical forms in minutes or hours by printing layers of plastic or other materials that fuse together into a single part.
The printers offer a relatively quick way to weed out impractical designs.
“You might find the part is too big, too small or it may not be applicable, but the parts tend to morph into something better,” he said.
In addition, Zubrickie said, the machines can print complex parts that would be impossible or very costly to make through traditional manufacturing.
Indeed, TE used the 3-D printing technology in 2014 to build a fully functional motorcycle, hoping to demonstrate the potential to make real-world products.
Potential is still the key word.
While the machines can make functional parts for use in upgrading production machines, Zubrickie said the materials being used are not yet durable enough to last.
“Technology is not evolving as fast as our expectations,” he said.
He is hoping to catch up someday.
Zubrickie said it could be another 10 or 15 years before 3-D printing is used to mass produce durable products for regular use, like a pair of skis or a shovel.
TE has invested about $2 million in the equipment it runs in the Dauphin County prototyping center. Zubrickie believes that investment will grow as new technology comes along.
Indeed, TE continues to test new machines from different manufacturers to figure out what works best. Each machine varies in terms of the materials it can use and the size of the products it can spit out, he said.
He believes manufacturers will need a variety of machines even after the technology is suitable for mass production.
And, he said, his center may be a template.
“We have to get there somehow,” he said.