A metal lamination factory that opened last April northwest of Tokyo is ramping up the development of new products using its three-dimensional metal printers while collaborating with some local small and midsize companies to drive innovation.
Operated by Nihon Michelin Tire Co., which conducts research and development in Ota, Gunma Prefecture, along with other firms, the new facility named Michelin AM Atelier combines 3D metal printers with unique additive manufacturing, or AM, technology in which objects are created through a process of layering material.
The Japanese unit of the famous French tire manufacturer expects to contribute to manufacturing technology advances which will, in turn, lead to the development of a network of new and complementary businesses in the area.
AM Atelier enables partner companies to “make tough, solo journeys into new fields while hedging their risks,” Gen Sudo, president of Nihon Michelin, said, while stressing the significance of the plant at a company briefing in mid-May at the Gunma prefectural office.
The number of participants in R&D programs at AM Atelier has expanded to 22 companies and organizations from eight at the launch. Nihon Michelin will relocate its head office from Tokyo’s Shinjuku Ward to Ota in August in a bid to increase partnerships with as many local firms as possible.
Nihon Michelin has developed proprietary AM technology to produce complex 3D objects from metallic powders and resins, which are layered and solidified using lasers. The technology has been used to make molds for automobile tires.
At AM Atelier, participant companies can use the 3D printers for training engineers or developing new products.
Including training and seminars held before the official launch of AM Atelier’s operations, more than 60 people from companies not only in Gunma but also from other prefectures such as Hyogo and Shimane participated.
Kyowa Industrial Co., a manufacturer of precision machinery in Takasaki, Gunma, was one participant. When its president Hiroko Suzuki introduced the company’s product in the United States, she says she was asked to show a 3D printed prototype on the spot.
“I was not expecting this at all,” she said. “I was shocked to find out that the use of 3D printers is widespread abroad.”
“Small and midsize companies cannot afford to buy their own 3D printers and we have no know-how. We were drawn to AM Atelier’s ideas for this reason.”
Like Suzuki’s company, many small and midsize business owners consider it a must to use digital technology to improve the quality of products and the efficiency of operations.
Leading automaker Subaru Corp. has its main domestic plant in Ota, and in the surrounding area there are factories that handle auto parts and interior components. To enhance competitiveness, they need to meet changes in demand driven by a shift to electric vehicles. Toa Industries Co., an Ota-based auto parts maker that supplies to Subaru, is another participant in the program.
Using a 3D printer, a participant in AM Atelier’s training has developed molds with sophisticated structures that are difficult to create by conventional cutting. Resin poured into the mold is cooled quickly and evenly and a method has been devised to suppress the warping and deformation of products.
AM Atelier also serves as a “salon” where participating companies can pool their knowledge and conduct joint research. They envision sharing and verifying experimental data, manufacturing legacy parts for old out-of-production vehicles and developing new products beyond company boundaries.
Toa President Shinichi Iizuka said, “Cooperation between local companies will increase if knowledge deepens. This region can become a leader in 3D printing technology.”
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