3D printing capability brings ideas into reality for Astec, Inc.
3DSystems ProJet 5000 professional 3D
The 3DSystems ProJet 5000 professional 3D printer provides detailed prototypes for Astec.

Innovation, by its nature, tends to outpace resources. In custom manufacturing, ingenious solutions and next-generation ideas are sometimes put on hold because the cost of the equipment and materials to make them a reality are cost prohibitive or too rare to produce them in a widely accessible manner. Even building a prototype of a new machine part can require dedicated hours and expense with no guarantee of success. However, by using state-of-the-art 3D printing technology to create prototype burners, Astec, Inc. has narrowed the gap between what can be imagined and what is possible.

Thorough Process, Precision Equipment

Working both with outside partners and engineers inside Astec, the 3D printing process is overseen by Michael Swanson, P.E., manager of the Astec Burner Group. First, the engineer presents a problem and the idea for a new part, and it is designed and drawn as a 3D CAD model. Depending on the part, virtual tests are performed to assess the design's performance using computational fluid dynamics (CFD), discrete element method (DEM), and other analysis software. Then, a physical prototype is built in the 3D printer and testing of the prototype determines if a new iteration is needed.

The Astec Burner Group relies on a 3DSystems ProJet 5000, a large-scale, precision 3D printer that the team operates on an almost daily basis. The ability to create prototypes in precise detail meeting the design's needs is key to Astec's successful use of 3D printing. "Every part is different," said Michael Swanson, "and when building a prototype, even the smallest change in a design can yield different results. The more exact we can build a test part, the more accurate the tests will be."

Prototype of a printed nozzle part.
The prototype printed nozzle part before test firing.
Testing of the Astec burner
Testing of the burner with its 3D prototype is successful.

Out With The Old

Historically, Astec outsourced such quick turnaround prototype manufacturing to third-party suppliers, a process that limited the amount of testing that could be performed and the number of prototypes that could be produced. "The old method of drawing a part and individually machining it took two weeks," Swanson added. "The current technology has cut that time down to, on average, two days."

When Astec brought 3D printing in-house, Swanson's group now had the technology to machine more prototypes, quicker and at greater savings. With the lag time between iterations reduced to a mere couple of days, engineers can now fine-tune their tests and see immediate results. Today, Astec can build a prototype, assess it, and manufacture a new version for testing in a fraction of the time it would have taken to machine just one prototype using the old method.

Computational Fluid Dynamics

Accurate implementation of CFD is key to a 3D-printed prototype's success, but it is also the starting point for innovative and cutting-edge designs. "In the past, some of the parts we've tested for burners would not have been possible to prototype. The complexity and intricacy of the design would have made it nearly impossible to find a shop with the equipment capable of machining them," said Swanson.

As Astec's ability to prototype ever more intricate parts increases, so too is their opportunity to solve problems. Swanson noted that requests to build prototypes continue to increase and he sees no ceiling on 3D printing's potential. "If it can be drawn," he noted, "it can be built."

New Ideas, New Options

Astec, Inc.'s use of 3D printing for prototype parts and sales and marketing display models benefits the entire company. Testing is now possible for more parts with increased complexity, leading Astec engineers to implement more concepts that would once be deemed too far-fetched or prohibitively expensive for the real world. In the future of 3D printing, however, the real world is what you make it.