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Adding 3D Printing to the Machine Shop: Lessons From A&M Tool 

November 08, 2018

A&M Tool and Design started in 1948 as a family owned, single source, machine shop in Southbridge, Massachusetts. Today it still holds onto its history as a close-knit shop with talented engineers and machinists while updating their tools and facilities to remain on the cutting edge of capabilities and efficiency. This merger of modernized new equipment and reliable traditional tech gives them their industry-leading reputation as they make parts and custom machines for aerospace, optics, and robotics for customers such as Boston Dynamics, LinkNYC, NASA, Goodrich, and Corning.

“Part of our pursuit in looking for a 3D printer was being able to have something that could run pretty autonomously with limited training,” said Ryan Little, an A&M Tool mechanical engineer. “We can run some of the CNC machines downstairs, but they're rarely available, and programming a CNC machine for an advanced job in Mastercam, or just trying to do it on the controller itself, can take hours. Starting up a job with Formlabs PreForm software takes 10 minutes, and it's really simple.”

Speed is the key to success in a production environment and A&M Tool is always searching for tech that can reliably and cost-effectively scale. Less than a year ago, they added the Formlabs Form 2 to their toolset. This industrial-grade Stereolithography (SLA) 3D printer allows them to create complex geometries not suitable for CNC machines, expedite prototyping workflows and increase capacity for affordably producing parts in-house. It gives the shop a real advantage. However, they are constantly finding opportunities to use 3D printed parts to enhance workflows and projects by accelerating timelines, mitigating errors and creating functional end-use parts.

“3D printing has become a priceless tool in our toolbox,” said Guido Jacques, vice president of operations at A&M. “It’s kind of a cliché, but it’s really allowing all of us to think completely outside the box.”

Accelerate Timelines
Using the 3D printer is a material based decision. Does it need to be metal or can a polymer-based material be a substitute? When 3D printing fits the function of the piece it allows the team to make parts faster. They aren't waiting for a person to run it on a machine and they can utilize all hours; They can run a print overnight and collect it in the morning.

“The printer almost feels like an auxiliary tool in addition to CAD,” Little said. “We do a ton of prototyping for different types of tooling. If we didn’t have the Form 2, many prototypes would just stay in CAD until we were ready to machine, and there would be some things that would never get made or designed because it wouldn't be practical.”

A&M Tool's team of talented machinists and welders are able to turn complex drawings and numerous call-outs into physical models. However, sometimes clarity is needed, especially for complex geometries like undercuts. With the availability of 3D printing, assembly or SolidWorks files can be scaled down and printed for reference. And the machinists have adopted this process and request the models themselves.

Functional End-Use Parts
The form 2 can also produce functional parts needed in a pinch. When a spider coupling for one of their large lens polishing machines arrived in the wrong size two days before a trade show they were able to quickly design and 3D print a replacement in durable resin. This printed coupling was then used to drive a two-horsepower motor on a grinding machine.

The A&M Tool engineering team uses the Form 2 3D printer regularly to produce parts for prototyping, tooling, and more.
Manufacturers and machine shops across industries are adopting 3D printing to increase operational efficiency and reduce the costs of outsourcing parts like jigs, fixtures, and tooling.
“It will justify itself with helping you do things that your customers aren't thinking about at the time of purchase. We’ve been very happy with the Form 2, and very happy with the decision that we've made,” Jacques said.

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