Last month (February 2007), I took some time off to visit the Pacific Design and Manufacturing show at the convention center in Anaheim California, right across the street from Disneyland. This mammoth exposition incorporated a whole slew of different shows under the same roof, which flowed into one another: the WestPack packaging show, ATX automated packaging expo, Plastec for plastics technologies, MD&M for medical design and manufacturing, and Electronics West, showcasing innovations in electronics. While this made for a somewhat overwhelming experience not to be seen in a day by anybody but a jogger, it offered some interesting cross-pollination between different worlds which otherwise don’t get together much. Since I’m interested in many of these things, it gave me a lot to see, and a wealth of information to tap, from people manning booths who would otherwise be hard to reach. Many of the manufacturers I represent were there, like Sherline Products, Flashcut CNC, Roland (helping out at another company’s booth), Mecsoft, and Envisiontec, makers of the Perfactory rapid prototyping system. It was also possible to get demonstrations of some products I’d only read about, like the Handy-scan and Nextengine 3D scanners, and see some cool machines in action, like Adept’s new parallel-kinematics parts sorter (Adept Quatro click on the “3D Animation” link at the bottom), which they claim is the “world’s fastest robot.”
Since I’m in the process of building a CNC router for myself, it was interesting to be able to visit with the makers of the various bits and pieces needed to put these together. There were several producers of drives and motor systems, both servo and stepper-based; some were integrated into single units (like “Smartmotors” ); others were available a la carte, like Arcus and Anaheim Automation, Both 80-20, makers of an ingenious system of T-slotted aluminum extrusions and the fittings to go with them that make racks, tables, benches, and machine frames (“The Industrial Erector Set”) were there, along with Bosch, which makes a competing but compatible system of their own. It was good to be able to see and play with different linear slides, like the Drylin system from IGUS, NB Corp., THK and a system from LM76 which is based on a system of precision-ground steel shafting set in aluminum extrusions and angular contact rollers with eccentric preload adjustment; this last seems like a good alternative for building low-cost CNC routers, since they are relatively unaffected by contaminants and debris. Several makers of precision ball screws were there, like HiWin from San Jose which seem about as economical as any I could find. Stock Drive Products had a booth too, so I was able to talk with someone knowledgeable about motor couplings and timing belt pulleys, which helped in figuring out some of the thorny problems I’d set myself up for in my design (which calls for driving a gantry from both sides with a single motor). At SAB Cable, I was also able to find out about cables that would withstand continuous flexing for millions of cycles, as long as the kink radius was not too small. I spoke with bearing manufacturer Boca Bearings about mounted bearings to handle my jack-shafts and hybrid bearings to rebuild my noisy router motor. I also found the makers of the fasteners and inserts I need to put the whole thing together, Precision Fasteners, who gave out a nice sample kit for free . To keep the fasteners from working their way out, not only Loctite Corp., which is known for this, but a new kid on the block, ND Industries were offering solutions. Since my machine has a deep and heavy Z axis, it was good to get in touch with the makers of constant-force springs, which will be able to counterbalance the weight and prevent it from crashing to the table when the power’s cut off. Century Spring and Vulcan Spring both specialize in these things, and I was able to get an idea of what would and wouldn’t work for this, and how much life I could expect from them (100,000 cycles seemed to be the best they can do). To keep the machine from shaking too badly, I found I could use advanced anti-vibration mounts from Vibration Mounts, and I asked about dry lubricants from Micro Care, the people who make them—they said none of their coating products would last long on a ball screw, but that their PTFE-based dry lube spray might help in a circumstance where oils and grease would only gum things up. The brush rings from Sealeze—circular brushes with inward-facing bristles—seem like they’d also be helpful in keeping debris from entering the screws in the first place, if mounted on either side of the nuts.
Many companies were there trying to get work from designers and product developers. People doing all sorts of specialized manufacturing processes had examples of some of their more intricate and difficult projects on display for us to marvel at, and afforded us a rare opportunity to quiz them about how these things are done. I learned about the rubber-plaster casting process from A & B Die Casting of Hercules, CA—this involves making a rubber master part, encasing it in a plaster mold, removing the rubber, and pouring in metal. It’s suitable for parts too complex for standard sand-casting, since the rubber can flex where a rigid sand pattern cannot. This process is also offered by A.L. Johnson Company and Armstrong Mold Corp.. Companies were also offering other kinds of metal manufacturing services, like sintering from metal powder (Colorado Sintered Metals, Precision P/M ) sandcasting (General Foundry of San Leandro), investment casting in exotic alloys, photo-chemical machining [ 1] good for intricate cutout work in thin sheet, electropolishing [1, 2]. I was especially impressed by the ability to permanently anodize color photographs onto curved pieces of aluminum demonstrated by Sapa Profiles Inc.—the images had an iridescent quality that was quite striking. I lusted after the hand-held ProScope microscopes that Bodelin Technologies was demonstrating for part-inspection purposes—these were available in a range of focal lengths up to 400x, and worked like video cameras when hooked up to a Windows computer.
Plastics manufacturing was a major focus here, and Rapid Prototyping seems to have made major inroads in the industry. A host of companies were offering to make one-off plastic parts with short turnaround times, among them Solid Concepts (now Stratasys), Rapid Product Solutions, Prototypes Plus, Schmit Prototypes, Scicon Technologies and Advatech, which claims to have the world’s largest SLS (Selective Laser Sintering) machine, capable of a build volume of 7.8 cubic feet (21.625″ × 21.625″ × 28.875″). Some companies, like Protomold were offering to make real injection-molded plastic parts from a customer-supplied CAD file in as little as 3 days; apparently in an effort to stave off the challenge from lower-priced but necessarily slower offshore competitors. These were represented as well, of course, some companies manning their own booths, while many others were represented by services like Prim Technology offering to contract out ones manufacturing needs to a host of their Asian clients. Some plastic injection firms, like Servtech Plastics were even offering to arrange the outsourcing themselves, figuring, apparently, that they could survive as middlemen even if their own services couldn’t compete. Rubber casting was also on offer, with companies like Apple Rubber—no relation to the computer company or the Beatles and Silcotech of Canada looking for parts to mold in silicone rubber, while Sorbothane of Kent Ohio offered castings in their patented visco-elastic material for various applications, and Greene Rubber Co. positioned itself as a general-purpose rubber fabricator, with water-jet and die cutting, machining, and laminating as well as molding services. I was also interested in the plastics welding equipment (basically hot-air guns with attachments) from Abbeon Cal Inc. and Loctite’s adhesives systems, which used light to cure glues suitable for difficult tasks like bonding non-clear glass to plastic.
Altogether, it made for a strenuous couple of days of walking the aisles, although with all the candy used to lure people to the booths, it would take some self-control to lose weight at this. Between that and the pens, bags, and free samples given out, it was a lot like trick-or-treat time for grownups. Since I was reserving my bag space for all this good swag, I didn’t pick up much product literature at the show. But having allowed the salespeople to swipe my magnetically-coded ID badge when I spoke with them, I got a flood of it for several weeks following my return. In fact, if one went at this wholeheartedly, it would be possible to heat ones home for the winter entirely on the catalogs and brochures arriving as a result of attending this one show…