Canadian based company, Nieka Systems, produces sample preparation equipment that allows its customers in the cement production and mining industries to assess and ensure quality in their manufacturing processes. The devices convert cement or ore samples into glass discs that are used to produce accurate compositional analyses of the samples.
The challenge – outsourcing 3D printing
A platinum crucible is used to melt the material samples which are then poured into a hot platinum mold. The melting process begins when the temperature reaches close to 1000C. The mixture is then poured into a mold and is immediately cooled. The inner components in Nieka’s fusion instruments must be made from materials that can withstand high heats and tolerate rapid temperature cycles.
Inconel, a nickel-based superalloy, was the preferred choice for the clips holding the molds and crucibles in place above the gas burners. This is due to it being able to withstand high temperatures of up to 1000C. CNC machining was looked at as an option for producing crucible clips in the Inconel however, history showed that the lead time was too long and the cost was well beyond Nieka System’s budget. 3D printer service bureaus were utilized to outsource 3D printed Inconel crucible clips that use the technology ‘Direct Metal Laser Sintering’. The outsourcing cost was initially very appealing however, the lead times were highly unpredictable and the costs began adding up. The concern about keeping up with the product demand grew within the team as they already produce equipment offered to 20 countries worldwide.
“By adding the Markforged Metal X in-house, there’s virtually no lead time on these parts anymore,” said Louis Croistiere Ph.D., Founder, Nieka Systems
The Solution – bringing 3D printing in-house
Inspired by the quality results of the 3D printed Inconel crucible clips that use Direct Metal Laser Sintering technology but wanting lower production costs, quicker and predictable lead times all at once, Louis Croisetière Ph.D. made the decision to bring their manufacturing in-house. His goal was to find a solution that is simple to use, safe and within budget. Louis and his team at Nieka Systems carefully looked at the options in the 3D printing market. They found and selected the Markforged Metal X and two Markforged composite 3D printers. The team chose Markforged 3D printers because of their proven reliability and successful history in producing high-quality 3D printed parts.
They were able to easily print the crucible clips in Inconel 625 on the Metal X printer. Nieka completed internal testings for the clips and after passing the tests, the clips are now utilized globally. The team saw a huge potential in how far they can push their product’s design after introducing the Markforged 3D printers in their workflow. All their machines are now utilized across all the production areas within the business, from composite prototypes to final 3D printed Inconel parts.
“It’s reduced assembly time for us, and we have none of the design limitations we would have had if we used traditional methods,’ said Croisetiere.
3D printing the same batch of parts in-house is more cost-efficient and much faster. It is 10x cheaper and instead of waiting up to 4 weeks using traditional methods, the production process is completed in only 4 days using the Markforged system. The team saved just over AUD $120,000 on parts alone in 1 year.
Looking at the future
The team at Nieka Systems has increased its product development speed by bringing Markforged 3D printers in-house. The Metal X and composite 3D printers have accelerated their manufacturing process and are used to fabricate jigs and assembly aids. The Metal X was initially used to 3D print crucible and mold clips but is now used for other parts as well. The Markforged machines have improved the company’s workflow and are now an integral part of Nieka Systems’ production process. “Some of our new designs are based on the fact that we can print the parts, so I would say it’s kind of changed the way we work.”