machines

UM3DLab / YouTube.com

Some printers at the University of Michigan can make unusual prints.

Machines  in the University's 3D Lab can produce three-dimensional sculptures, car parts and even model human body parts. A student or faculty member can design a model, take it to the U-of-M's 3-D lab and leave hours later with their object in hand.

Here's how it works:

A student or faculty member designs a model on a computer. Technicians send the design to the refrigerator-sized machine, then a mechanical arm applies layers of material in cross-sections that slowly build up the model.

The machines layer plaster or heated plastic models as large as basketballs.

Imagine going home out at night while your computer keeps doing your job. That’s the basic idea behind a trend in manufacturing called “lights-out machining.” You punch out. The machines keep working. It’s a way to make a lot more product with a lot fewer people … and fewer jobs. Here’s the story of two Michigan companies that are trying to boost productivity and stay competitive by turning out the lights and going home.

First, a little perspective. Man’s love/hate relationship with automation has been around a long time. Take the 1936 classic Modern Times.

Charlie Chaplin is in a frenzy. He’s tightening bolts on the factory line. The boss straps him into a person-feeding machine, so his hands can keep working while his mouth eats lunch. It’s a nightmare of productivity, where men are captive to machines. But manufacturers today have a different vision.

“At the end of the shift, my operators go home. Their machines continue running in the building with nobody in it,” says John Hill.

Hill owns a small business called Midwest Mold Services. The company designs and builds metal molds for plastic parts. These parts wind up in cars, medical devices, and even as the emblem on the back of a Cadillac. Hill says in the old days, shaping these metal molds was a job for one machine and one operator.