Redazione Open Innovation
New 3D printing techniques, intelligent algorithms and innovative materials, new smart robot grippers to grasp printed parts. In other words, “innovations along the entire supply chain” to revolutionise in terms of speed, cost and safety the production of large-sized components (and the moulds needed to make them) for ships, aeroplanes and space rockets.
These are the achievements of IRCRAM 4.0, an innovative project centred on the new results of additive manufacturing through an approach typical of Industry 4.0.
In order to understand the potentials of IRCRAM (International Research Center for Robot and Additive Manufacturing 4.0) we need to take a step back.
The IRCRAM project got its start in response to the Call Hub Research and Innovation of Lombardy Region call for proposals.
The call funded 33 innovative projects of excellence drawn from POR FESR 2014-2020 resources: in the case of IRCRAM with over EUR 2.6 million (of a total project value of 6.4 million).
The partnership that proposed it is led by Camozzi Automation S.p.A. and includes two research centres and two SMEs, in addition to the lead company specialised in systems and technologies for Industrial Automation: Fondazione Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia -IIT, Kilometro Rosso Innovation District, FAE S.r.l., D&G Impianti Elettrici Snc.
The Milan Research Center
In view of the partnership for IRCRAM, IIT “opened a branch in Milan”, explains Mirco Chiodi, R&D Managing Director of the Camozzi Research Center. “We started up a Joint Lab for Research along with them, considered an integral part of the plant and the industrial production. In our Camozzi Research Center in Milan we installed MasterPrint, the largest 3D printer in the world, and have worked extensively to improve its performance and increase its intelligence”.
MasterPrint can make products up to 12 metres in length. The targeted market is specific, but has great potential for growth, namely the production of large functional components with high added value and the thermoplastic tooling needed to make them. The key sectors are primarily the aerospace industry, in addition to the marine, energy and transport sectors.
The innovation provided by additive manufacturing in these sectors is clear. “Let’s take the aerospace industry: many functional components today are produced using metal moulds”, says Chiodi. “Instead, using a 3D printer like MasterPrint and thermoplastic materials (or composites in the case of other Ingersoll printers) has clear advantages. In the first place, when it comes to times: to produce the same components using metal moulds, wait times can get up to six or nine months”, says the director of the Camozzi Research Center, “whereas to print similar ones with a 3D printer just one or two weeks is necessary”.
A perfect example of this strategic advantage is the production of two pairs of robots presently monitoring the status of the new San Giorgio Bridge in Genoa by means of intelligent algorithms. The robots were designed and produced in partnership with IIT in record time. This is also due to the use of MasterPrint, which was used for the production of moulds needed to produce the carbon frames of the robots.
In terms of cost savings, there is a reduced use of materials and a greater flexibility that allows the production of prototypes or customised variations.
Not least is the matter of safety: using 3D moulds enables automation of a process that to now has been overseen by operators. Their use can “relieve them of tasks that are potentially hazardous due to the heat and proximity to metals”.
The new approach 4.0
Automating productions of additive manufacturing for large-sized components therefore means allowing staff to take on other duties that are safer and more rewarding, such as performing control.
And this is where the approach 4.0 comes in: the idea is to install on MasterPrint a set of sensors to enable an intelligent control in real time and in a feedback loop with the printing process. This is in order to control and improve the dimensional precision of the printed parts as well as their mechanical properties.
In this regard, the ICRAM 4.0 project - concluded in November 2022 - started up the test phase in the Milan Research Center. The goal is now to proceed with the industrialisation of MasterPrint integrated with sensors.
Furthermore, “on a global level all the main players are working in this direction. Thanks to IRCRAM”, concludes Chiodi, “today we’re a step ahead of the others. And we want to increase this competitive advantage in the market of large-sized products made in 3D”.
Training at Kilometro Rosso
Also as regards this aspect, the project “considered the whole supply chain: what we sought to do is change the approach to additive manufacturing from beginning to end of the process. Because a 3D printed product calls for a completely different design and has different characteristics. For example, its mechanical strength cannot be isotropic as for the counterpart produced using traditional methods.
So it’s not by chance that IRCRAM 4.0 led to the development of robot grips (tools needed to grasp the products) with sensors, studied alongside IIT, that are “able to distinguish the different degrees of strength of the products that they are handling”.
And what’s more, the project also included the study of new thermoplastic, composite and metal materials to utilise for 3D printing of large parts; and of new 3D design techniques disseminated across the region through courses held at the Kilometro Rosso campus.