The best endorsement of a product is an end-user customer who can vouch for its attributes. These testimonials add third-party credibility to the product’s design and bring proof to its performance specifications.
Of course, a company wouldn’t suggest anything for customers that they wouldn’t do themselves. This is the case for Racine Metal-Fab (https://www.rm-f.com/), who used 3-D printing to design and build a fixture for its assembly process. Nearly a decade later, Racine Metal-Fab has perfected its 3-D printed tooling capabilities into a true time- and money-saving process for its customers who are looking to design new products.
Racine Metal-Fab is a medium to high volume precision sheet metal fabricator with deep roots in many industries, most notably in computer and electrical automation, food equipment and medical appliances. But the company is probably most well known in the commercial industrial lighting sector for its reflectors, which are used to direct light from LEDs. Light poles, outdoor sporting venues and many other commercial applications all use reflectors from Racine Metal-Fab in their lighting fixtures.
Making lighting fixtures or any other product at Racine Metal-Fab come to life first involves having a set standard in place. Following Kaizen-inspired lean manufacturing principles, Racine Metal-Fab excels at aesthetic and complex fabrication for new product development, creation of prototypes, engineering and other aspects of manufacturing. This approach to manufacturing is a true collaborative effort that yields the best results.
“We’re an extension of our customers’ engineering and manufacturing,” said Scott Lucas, president, Racine Metal-Fab. “We don’t make an end product. We make products that go into someone else’s products. And you have to be really good at that. We have to be as good or better than our customers’ internal manufacturing. We help them get to market fast and help keep them there for the long haul. We do that by being lean and having good technical people who can help our customers develop the products they need.”
Exploring New Technologies
Racine Metal-Fab’s foray into 3-D printing began with a customer request to machine a tool used to stamp parts for lighting fixtures on gas station canopies. The customer was operating on a tight budget for tooling, so they worked together exploring different options that still delivered a cost-effective solution.
“We had to be creative to get this done because it was a very complicated part with 36 forms,” said Andy Pike, director of customer development, Racine Metal-Fab. “This particular part would normally require a significant amount of money in tooling to develop.”
In brainstorming a workable solution, Pike and the team believed this part would be an ideal candidate for using 3-D printing technology as they could print a tool quickly, and work within their customer’s budget. The plan was met with approval and given the green light for development. The end result was an 8” x 8” printed plastic tool that perfectly forms a blank piece of metal into the exact part needed for their customer. This 3-D printed tool also shapes six 90° forms as well, and does it all in one hit.
“We did this as a prototype for our customer, not knowing how long the plastic would last,” Pike said. “It turns out we’ve run 10,000 pieces without any wear or tear on the tool. It’s really surpassed our expectations.”
Pike points out when the 3-D printed tool does wear down, the CAD file is already built and it’s a matter of simply printing off another tool, a step that takes just a few days. Racine Metal-Fab is still stamping out parts with the original tool developed in 2011.
Benefits of 3-D Printing
Since that first prototype began stamping out parts, Racine Metal-Fab quickly took note of the main benefit 3-D printing brings to its customers.
“The most important thing is speed to market to aide their product development,” Pike said. “3-D printing gives customers the ability to review and evaluate a part for form, fit and function, and make decisions very quickly.”
Racine Metal-Fab can design a tool and have it 3-D printed for prototyping in about a week. This fast turnaround represents a significant time-savings in total products development from a few weeks up to a few months, Pike said.
“If they’re able to find out if something works within a week, as opposed to something that takes several weeks being machined, that’s a huge amount of time,” he said. “For an average project it would be at least a month of developing a tool and process to make the product, whereas we can do it in a week and the customer can move forward from there.”
In addition to the time, 3-D printed tooling represents a substantial savings in money as well. Pike said the average price to design and machine a tool is $10,000 and up, while 3-D printing that same tool can be done for about $1,500 or less.
“We’ve been designing, testing, and improving 3-D printed tools for the last eight years. We’re all engineers; we’re not made up of estimators, that’s how we came up with this idea as a value add to our customers,” Pike added.
Embracing 3-D Printing
Racine Metal-Fab believes in 3-D printing so much that it uses printed tools and fixtures in several areas of its production and assembly.
The company developed what they call a swiping tool to help assemble a light fixture that’s used in ceiling lighting applications. This tool was drawn in CAD and 3-D printed.
“When we used to assemble this part by hand, we’d have to hand-push all these little tabs in, and that takes time,” said Margaret Zahalka, production specialist. “Now, we just insert the part into the swiping tool and it closes all eight tabs at one time. Each component of our swiping tool is 3-D printed. It works great for us.”
Pike added that if the swiping tool was machined, it would cost several thousand dollars.
The addition of 3-D printing capabilities is helping Racine Metal-Fab’s customers change the way they bring new products to life…and ultimately the way they do business.
“What 3-D printing brings to our customers is a lower-cost option, and much faster way to bring their product to life,” Pike said. “We look at a project and if we feel like there can be a 3-D printed tool that can create this form, we can deliver a prototype within a week.
“If you want to stay on top of the market, you need fast product development, and 3-D printing can do that for you.”
Andy Pike is the Director of Customer Development at Racine Metal-Fab. He can be reached at 262.554.1140.