Fiberglass, Carbon Fiber, and Large-Format Metal Additive Manufacturing Offer Fast, High-Quality Options for Making Large Tools and Parts

Will Kruspe
Will Kruspe

Technical Writer

Worker manually assembling fiberglass tooling for automotive

Fiberglass was first used in the 1930s as a material for insulating both commercial and residential buildings. It was discovered that fiberglass offered high tensile strengths, performed well at higher operating temperatures, and helped to drastically increase the efficiency of heating and cooling for buildings, making it perfect as an insulator. Fast forward to today, and fiberglass is now a widely adopted material used in all sorts of things, from surfboards and hockey sticks to body panels for aircraft and automotive vehicles, and so much more. We have been no stranger to the evolution of fiberglass tooling technology (check out this blog post to see how we’ve reduced weight on a 3D-printed mill fixture for one of our automotive customers by about 70%). Carbon fiber, which offered even more tensile strength, performance in a variety of harsh conditions, and lighter weight than fiberglass, was the next revolution in lightweight materials.

Although fiberglass is not as commonly used as it once was in the automotive and aerospace industries, we remain an industry leader in both fiberglass and carbon fiber molds from prototyping to production. While we have done some work in the energy sector as well as medical devices, we truly shine in the automotive & aerospace sectors. “Carbon Fiber is really what we work with the most now,” says Program Engineer, Jerry Kablak. “All of the body paneling for performance automobiles, rockets, spacecraft, etcetera increasingly demand lighter weight parts, which is a big selling point of carbon fiber,” he added. Everything from creating the mold, usually out of some type of tool steel, to curing in an autoclave (large, industrial furnace), to finishing via post-process machining can all be accomplished at our six facilities in Macomb, Michigan, and Cleveland, Ohio.

AUTOMOTIVE INDUSTRY APPLICATIONS

We work with some of the largest automotive OEMs in the world, mostly domestic brands such as Ford and General Motors. On occasion, the engineering group has gotten to work with the likes of Mercedes to assist with tooling for carbon fiber paneling on the performance AMG series. “We’re seeing much wider adoption of carbon fiber for most of these automotive OEMs. It used to be only low-production performance models, but this is slowly trickling down to your typical high-volume, everyday cars,” Jerry goes on to say. Having reliable tooling, which has been a specialty of ours for several decades now, is crucial for the mass production of cars and trucks by any automotive company.

AEROSPACE INDUSTRY APPLICATIONS

Aside from working on fun side projects such as paneling for an unmanned racecar from the Virginia Tech engineering teams, we have 25+ years of experience in delivering mission-critical elements for all sorts of aerospace components. Some of our long-term customers include Lockheed Martin, where they work on an assortment of aircraft, spacecraft, and other various vehicle and defense-related parts. The work varies from making just tool and die components, all the way up to manufacturing complete tooling, composite layups, and post-processing. A combination of additive manufacturing (3D printing) and CNC machining is used to achieve optimal surface finishes and repeatability as well as dial-in accuracy. Invar has gained wide adoption throughout the aerospace community, offering high strength and durability for the rigorous conditions aircraft face in the real world. We have invented and patented our own large-format invar 3D printers, which you can learn more about in this blog post.

The Best of Both Worlds: Additive + CNC Machining

Harmony is achieved from our versatile mix of additive and CNC manufacturing capabilities, which are complementary to one another in their respects. Large-scale metal additive manufacturing, or large-format metal 3D printing, is perfect for extremely large parts, intricate/complex geometries, and/or intricate features such as variable wall thicknesses. CNC machining is a technology that has been refined over decades of use and technological advancements over those many years. “The beauty of what we offer at Baker is that we are all under 1 roof - machining, 3D printing, quality assurance (QA), and everything in between. We have competitors that come to us when they can’t 3D print something, and others who come to us when they need secondary machining on their 3D-printed part,” Jerry says. Because of this, we hone our manufacturing processes and technologies to cater to a wide audience for parts large and small, simple and complex. Most of the time, 3D-printed parts need some sort of post-processing, which is where CNC machining comes into play. CNC machines clean up the rough edges, drill/tap holes, and perform other secondary operations needed to properly finish the end part.

Unique CNC Aerospace Job featuring Jerry Kablak

During the closing of our discussion, I asked Jerry for one job that stood out in his mind as something that was extremely complex and pushed the limits of what Baker was capable of. Immediately, he referred to a job that was almost too large for the brand-new, gantry-style EMCO MECOF PowerMill, which we had just taken delivery of. The PowerMill has a (roughly) 48 x 20 x 10 ft. working envelope. We were faced with the challenge of machining a large layup tool for an aerospace wing that was 52 ft. in length. This was the largest part that our team had ever faced and we were under major pressure to make it work however we could. To accomplish this job, we ended up breaking the wing up into two sections, each of which was machined in two setups. “The Bakers (founders) were there when this happened, so we combined our engineering and manufacturing know-how to get this job done!”, Jerry remarked.

YOUR COMPREHENSIVE SOURCE

In addition to large CNC machining envelopes, we have dual capabilities with our large-format 3D printers, which are specifically designed to meet our specifications. Not only can we produce small, polymer prototype parts with our FDM printers, but we can also achieve massive components using our patented Lincoln Electric Additive Solutions technologies. Our smaller milling and turning CNCs are capable of producing high-volume/high-mix parts, but we can also handle massive, 48 ft.+, parts with our large gantry-style milling machines. With nearly 30 years of experience in manufacturing, we have managed to become a one-stop shop for all of the machining, 3D printing, and quality assurance needs of our vast aerospace, automotive, space, and defense customers. For more information on our machining and 3D printing equipment and capabilities, check out our equipment list or get in touch with our team.

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