SEMA News—June 2012

BUSINESS
By Mike Imlay 

Precision Tools

Measuring, Cutting and Fabricating the High-Tech Way

  Trumpf laser cutter goes to work on some tubing
A Trumpf laser cutter goes to work on some tubing. Trumpf said that its laser cutters are especially suited to the sorts of 2D sheetmetal and thin-walled tubing applications found in many medium to large aftermarket fabrication shops and manufacturing environments.
   
There are basics to manufacturing that change little over time. To create marketable parts, manufacturers must mold, mill, drill, cut, weld and otherwise fabricate raw materials into something consumers find useful. The tools used to do these things are another matter altogether. It’s no secret that machine technologies are changing rapidly.

SEMA News recently decided to explore some of the incredible capital equipment that’s become standard in the modern small to medium manufacturing facility. In some cases, we discovered tools that truly fit the word “revolutionary.” In others, we found new twists on old tooling standbys—twists that make them more efficient or cost effective. The following is a quick survey of a few of our favorites for measuring, cutting and fabricating.

Laser Metrology

As the old fabrication adage goes, “measure twice, cut once.” In other words, exacting measurements are central to manufacturing and other shop operations.

Since their introduction, coordinate measurement machine (CMM) lasers have revolutionized manufacturing, offering fast and highly precise laser scanning for purposes of reverse engineering, product development and quality control. The technology is simple in concept: Using a CMM laser, a manufacturer can rapidly scan a part or model three dimensionally, making hundreds or even tens of thousands of data-point measurements per second, and create a highly accurate computer-aided design (CAD) file from the scans. That CAD file can then be used to engineer new parts or serve as a comparison file for quality control.

The problem is that such laser devices are traditionally large, relatively immobile and extremely costly, right? Well, not necessarily.

SEMA Show exhibitor Hexagon Metrology offers a suite of Romer portable CMM laser measuring arms and scanners that it believes have “fundamentally changed coordinate metrology by going where traditional measuring machines can’t.”

In fact, Hexagon Metrology Regional Sales Manager Robb Rudluff recently demonstrated the portability and effectiveness of a six-axis Romer arm during a SEMA measuring session at the association’s headquarters in Diamond Bar, California. Rudluff operated the arm on behalf of SEMA-member manufacturer Airaid to engineer a performance intake product for the Scion FR-S. He pointed out that, at a starting price of $39,000, the six-axis, point-to-point CMM probe is among the most popular models for automotive aftermarket use. It can scan 200 points per second with its standard probe attachment.

Need more accuracy? The company also makes a seven-axis arm capable of “cloud scanning” 20,000 points per second to dynamically cover entire 3D surfaces in just minutes. “It allows you to effectively reverse-engineer anything—any material,” Rudluff said.

  Jeff Kerr laser scans a chopped ‘50 Mercury belonging to Mike Filion
Coverking CAD Product Engineer Jeff Kerr laser scans a chopped ‘50 Mercury belonging to Mike Filion, owner of ProDesign Hot Rods in Santa Ana, California. The hand-held CMM laser allows Coverking to create a precise, custom-fit cover for any custom vehicle in about a week’s time.
   
Thanks to their portability, Hexagon’s Romer arms and laser trackers actually boast a variety of manufacturing applications. They can be used in a factory for large-part and assembly inspection, including inspection of first-off-the-line parts to ensure that they conform to CAD designs or other specifications. The Romers can also help with incoming quality control, inspecting arriving parts right on the dock. The arms further allow for precise 3D positioning of parts for assembly as well as setting up tooling and fixturing.

In the realm of rapid prototyping, a cloud scanner/laser tracker can create an STL file of a part or object, which can then be reproduced by 3D printing.

“Some of our larger customers start with Romer arms, then go up to laser trackers for their labs,” said Rudluff, who added that CMM lasers can help manufacturers save on material costs. “Everything right now is lean manufacturing. No one wants scrap. The more you can fine tune your process in the beginning, fine tune your milling, welding, fixturing—everything plays an important part.”

Over at SEMA-member company Coverking, Vice President for Product Development Steve Gupta is also a big believer in the ability of CMM laser cloud scanning to revolutionize a business.

“We’ve been looking into and monitoring this technology and the different companies in it since 1994,” Gupta said. “It’s obviously now a universe away from where it was back then. We felt this is the time the technology has finally reached a point where we could actually jump in and use it in production. A few years from now, it will be even better and more user friendly, but we decided this was a point where we could actually make a go of it.”

To that end, Coverking recently made a sizable capital investment in a laser-based scanner for the creation of one-off custom car covers. The technology allows Coverking to scan any vehicle and render a precise 3D CAD file of its exterior surface. That CAD file can then be converted to a 2D pattern file for a precision-fit cover.

“It’s enabled us to reach an accuracy and detail in pattern making that was just not possible before,” said Gupta. “As we’ve moved into a market of more and more specialty, this has really allowed us to almost create a new market just because some of the patterns that we’re making now were not available before. There’s a new level of customer who’s just amazed by the kind of fit that’s now possible.”

Even more amazing is the technology’s portability and speed. Coverking can bring the scanner equipment to car shows and events—or even a customer’s garage. From scan to finished product, a cover can be completed inside a week to exactly fit any street rod, chopped body or collector vehicle. Moreover, the extra expense to the consumer is minimal: Gupta said that this level of customization adds a mere $100 to $150 to the cost of a regular custom cover that, depending upon materials, can run from $75 to $500.

  Mike Filion’s Mercury at his ProDesign Hot Rods shop
The finished precision-fit Coverking product adorns Mike Filion’s Mercury at his ProDesign Hot Rods shop in Santa Ana, California.
   
“You know SEMA’s all about specialty and customizing,” Gupta said. “Consider that in this small product segment of car covers, there was once a period where you had to buy kind of an ‘almost-fit’ small, medium or large cover. Then we introduced custom covers and, yeah, they were custom, but now we’ve gone to a level of such detail that you might call it ‘super custom.’ It’s gotten to the point where we’re able to make a cover to fit street rods, chop tops and all the different vehicles that the SEMA community creates—and it’s a perfect fit, not a compromised fit.”

However, Gupta conceded that creating a perfect fit for customers currently has a hefty price tag for Coverking. The machinery cost about $120,000 plus another $20,000 for software. Then there was the cost of a dedicated employee to operate the equipment.

“It’s an expensive proposition relatively speaking, but the way we look at it, we’re really pioneering a new product and market,” Gupta concluded. “Everyone who’s seen one of these covers—there’s no question they want one. The product is creating a demand just because it was not available before.”

Of course, while manufacturers find new and innovative uses for CMM laser systems, collision repair shops have long employed them to measure vehicle frames for pulling and straightening with exacting precision. Yet even here, technology is advancing. Infinity 3D Laser Measuring is on the verge of rolling out a new system that features a tilt sensor in the laser, allowing more freedom of positioning.

Dubbed the Infinity XMS, the system utilizes laser targets that are hung from adapters that attach to key points in a car frame. Unlike other systems, these targets also contain electronics that read where they are mounted or are hanging in relation to the object being scanned.

“That allows the system to actually see and compensate for a car sitting on a two-post lift or other unlevel conditions,” explained Craig Totten, Infinity 3D Measuring customer service manager. “Other systems can’t compensate if the car’s not level and will therefore measure inaccurately.

“It’s a system that has been in the works for a number of years. The technology is based on aerospace technology. Some of the guys involved with this were involved with projects for Boeing and McDonnell-Douglas, making laser systems for the building of F-16s and Boeing 777s to make sure they’re straight when they build them. They carried over some of the same technology from those projects into this one.”

Laser Cutting

  Infinity XMS laser system set up to measure frame damage for collision repair.
Infinity XMS laser system set up to measure frame damage for collision repair. Based on aerospace technology, this new system can compensate for vehicles sitting on a two-post lift or other unlevel conditions.
   
Having measured with a laser, why not cut with one? According to Tom Bailey, laser sales engineer for Trumpf Inc., more and more medium to large aftermarket shops are doing just that.

“The area where the laser tends to excel is in plate work—1-inch thick and under—and sheetmetal, gauge-material thickness,” explained Bailey. “Compared to plasma cutting, the laser has an advantage in processing speed in thinner sheetmetal materials and also in the ability to intricately cut contours to a very high degree of accuracy.”

This isn’t to say that lasers will replace plasma cutters. Both have their specific uses, Bailey pointed out. For example, in the area of tube cutting, “Plasma machines tend to be more suited to very heavy, industrial, thicker materials. If you want to cut 3-foot-diameter steel pipe for the petrol industry, plasmas are going to be the obvious choice there. However, when you’re talking about the materials that are more common for automotive fabricators—your thin-walled tube, usually mild steel or stainless steel—the laser is typically a more productive tool.”

In fact, Trumpf finds that its laser products are popular with larger shops doing custom work for vehicle enthusiasts, performance parts for street tuner cars and truck body work, including boxes and fenders. Meanwhile, smaller shops tend to benefit from Trumpf’s laser marking equipment. According to Bailey, “The investment costs are not that significant, and it allows you to provide real quality custom work for the customization of parts. Direct part marking can be anything from names and images or numbers to other production information for data tracking components.”

As far as the costs of a laser cutter, Bailey said: “It really depends on what your production volumes require. We can provide a machine for pretty much any capacity demand that the customer might have. For a fabricator that’s doing a fairly small amount of laser work or just trying to get into the laser cutting market, a product like our TruLaser 1030 machine is a great place to start, and you can purchase that machine for as little as $335,000 new. That would be a flatbed 2D sheet-cutting machine, very common for smaller shops that are just getting started with laser cutting.”

3D Printing

  Hexagon Metrology Regional Sales Manager Robb Rudluff demonstrated the precision of a six-axis Romer CMM laser arm at a recent SEMA measuring session.
Hexagon Metrology Regional Sales Manager Robb Rudluff demonstrated the precision of a six-axis Romer CMM laser arm at a recent SEMA measuring session. The tool’s portability means laser-assisted reverse engineering can now be accomplished quickly and easily virtually anywhere.
   
Meanwhile, an increasing number of small to medium shops are learning to “print” parts instead of cutting, milling and fabricating them the old-fashioned way. Welcome to the world of additive manufacturing, in which objects are built three-dimensionally layer by layer in wax, plastics and even metal. (We previously examined this wave of the future in “Just Hit Print,” SEMA News, December 2011.)

In 3D printing, build materials are melted and extruded by a “print head” in fine layers until there’s a finished part, explained Joe Hiemenz, spokesman for Stratasys Inc., a Minnesota-based maker of the machines. Overhangs and protrusions are handled by building breakaway or dissolving support structures into the design, which are then removed during finishing. Depending on a product’s size, the entire process can take a few hours or a few days from beginning to end.

“If you are any kind of custom manufacturer—and especially if you’d like your finished part to be thermoplastic—it’s definitely a technology you should look at,” said Hiemenz.

Cathy Lewis, vice president of global marketing for 3D Systems, another 3D print manufacturer, agrees. She noted that when 3D printing was invented approximately 26 years ago, it was primarily used for rapid prototyping. However, Lewis said that the technology is now advanced enough to mass produce end-use parts. (It can also “print” the tools and molds to make those parts.) Meanwhile, the price of 3D printing has dropped to a level that small fabricators and even garage tinkerers can afford.

“3D Systems is continuing into what we think is a really important stage of the technology, because we now have a choice of technologies, a choice in price points, and we have prototyping and end-use parts,” said Lewis. “We think this next phase is about true, broad adoption and a price point that pretty much allows consumer adoption.”

But why would an automotive aftermarket manufacturer or fabricator want to own such technology?

“In the aftermarket category, you’re going to be asked to come up with replacement parts and better ways to bring down their price points,” Lewis said. “To an extent, you can create, innovate and even do some reverse engineering.

“Say you have an auto part that is out of date, and say there’s not a CAD file readily available. You can actually take a scanner, scan that object, take that scanned file into a CAD package, edit it, make sure it’s water-tight, and all of a sudden reproduce that part that’s no longer available [in a matter of hours]. That can only be done with 3D printing.”

  sPro 60 SLS Center 3D printer by 3D Systems
An sPro 60 SLS Center 3D printer by 3D Systems. Printers now run the gamut in size from “desktop” models costing as little as $1,300 all the way up to extremely large, complex models in the $1 million range. For companies that can’t justify machine ownership, companies like 3D Systems also offer affordable “print-on-demand” solutions.
   
Having been a pioneer of additive manufacturing technology, 3D Systems has a long history of assisting automotive OEMs and aftermarketers with 3D printing solutions. Depending upon size and application, modern 3D printers run the gamut from $1,300 “desktop” models up to large-volume, million-dollar machines. However, even if a shop decides that owning such a device isn’t all that feasible, 3D Systems offers a print-on-demand program.

“The idea is that, as long as you have the file and know what you want printed, you can upload your file, get it quoted and printed on demand and shipped overnight,” Lewis said, adding that 3D printing is helping to return manufacturing to American shores, as are other revolutionary technologies.

“There’s no reason why things have to be continuously outsourced, particularly as they become somewhat custom, special and unique,” she said. “Those kind of parts or applications can be produced here, locally, using these very affordable technologies.”

Perhaps those words sum up the most exciting aspect of all the technologies we surveyed. From CMM lasers to laser cutters to 3D printers, modern tooling is allowing the aftermarket to “bring home” far more precision with far fewer man-hours and at far less cost. That truly is an amazing tooling revolution.   

3D Printing for SEMA Members

For many SEMA members, rapid prototyping and 3D printing are nothing new. For years, the association has provided a rapid prototyping service at lowered costs to members. For information about rapid prototyping, 3D printing, and SEMA’s services to members, contact Oscar Munoz, SEMA’s vehicle product data manager, via e-mail at oscarm@sema.org or phone at 909/978-6731.

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