Additive manufacturing was a natural fit for Linear Mold & Engineering Inc.
In 2005, the company purchased an EOS M270 metal additive manufacturing machine to speed production of prototype tools for its internal operations. The Livonia, Mich., mold maker's additive manufacturing operation has since grown to nine machines, with plans to quadruple that number in the years ahead.
AM now represents 40 to 45 percent of Linear's sales, said John Tenbusch, Linear's president. In addition to building molds, Linear provides prototyping and production services for aerospace, medical, defense and oil and gas end markets.
“There's a lot of different applications for the use of the technology. So for all of these different vertical markets that we're serving, the metal printing side of it is becoming a huge part of Linear's overall business,” Tenbusch said.
Linear hit its AM stride “growing” tooling inserts with conformal cooling channels already inside. With AM, Linear can build molds with cooling water channels that would not be possible with traditional drilling, resulting in reduced cycle time, reduced scrap and better part quality, the company says.
Because of its experience in mold building and quality requirements, Linear is also able to complete its post-machining and finishing of AM parts in-house.
“It's a great crossover,” Tenbusch said.
As an early adopter of the technology, Linear developed its own internal training program, something that is particularly important for AM because of its complexity, he said. And as that side of the business grew, he realized a need for education outside Linear.
“We discovered that a lot of our customers … want to use the technology, but they're not really sure how they should use it, so we've actually put together a training program now,” he said.
Linear currently offers customizable training classes for customers considering purchasing an AM machine. A second option, which Linear calls its center of excellence, provides training and technical support at a customer's location once they have purchased a machine. Linear currently has one machine on-site with a customer and a second similar contract in negotiations, said Kristen Eisiminger, marketing and sales coordinator at Linear.
“We like to say that the machine is only 30 percent of the equation,” Eisiminger said. “All the rest goes into designing for the process, how to set up the build for the machine,” making sustained support crucial.
“There's a lot of tricks to the technology, about being able to make successful parts very quickly,” Tenbusch agreed. “And so we found many of our OEM customers who bought the machines, they just struggled to make parts. So instead of allowing the technology to get a bad name, we actually show them.
“You can take somebody who is very interested, wants to learn the technology, and you can fast-forward them probably by a year or a year-and-a-half, and within five, six weeks they're actually making parts,” Tenbusch said.
Linear now is planning for a new phase of expansions that will include eight to 10 new machines within the next year and more to follow. The company will begin construction on an addition to its facility in the spring, with room for what the company is calling R&D Pods — dedicated, secured space where customers can develop and prototype new parts, and have access to technical support from Linear.
Eisiminger said Linear has been successful working with customers thus far, and can handle the backlog when customers don't have the capacity, as Linear does, for 10 or more machines, so the company doesn't think of the training programs as “giving away their secrets.”
“The more people that know about it, the more that we promote the technology, the more desire will be for parts to be made this way, which will only help grow the industry,” Tenbusch said.