It is no secret that in Central New York, optics are big deal. The area’s rich history of being leaders in the optics and photonics industries means that we have the privilege of working with a lot of those companies.

Over the years I have analyzed countless 3D models from these companies. I am always impressed at the level of complexity and precision required to manufacture internal optical components.

Complexity is Key

Most often, when people think of optics, they think of clear lenses of different shapes and sizes. However, the more challenging pieces for optics companies to manufacture tend to be complex metal components used to hold the lenses in precise positions.

Their complexity and high precision make them very expensive to machine. This is typically accomplished via 5-axis CNC machining or EDM (electric discharge machining). Both of these operations tend to be very expensive in terms of hourly operational costs.

In the case of EDM, the most common complaint I hear from engineers is how painfully slow the process is. However, it is the only way today to achieve incredible precision and surface finish.

For everyday production, these challenges are tolerated. Where they become exceptionally painful is during research and development. New metal components become a bottleneck to the prototyping process because of how long they take to machine internally. Projects end up being delayed – or worse – the parts are outsourced. When parts are outsourced, typically a shop will charge 5-10X the raw material cost.

An example of a complex 3D printed metal optics component. The flexures shown are a very common feature in optical alignment parts.
An example of a complex 3D printed metal component. The flexures shown are a very common feature in optical alignment parts.

Hybrid Manufacturing Isn’t Just For Optics

A solution to these issues is a strategy called hybrid manufacturing. This concept is brand new to many engineers who are used to only traditional machining strategies.

First, a near-net-shape part is 3D printed using a metal 3D printer. Next, a secondary operation like 5-axis machining or EDM will hone-in any critical features to their correct dimensions.

The entire goal of this strategy is to cut down on the time demand on the 5-axis mill and EDM machine. From the many conversations we have had with optics companies, time on those machines is treasured.

Typically, if a prototype part is being made, it steals time away from production activity. It is very rare that a business would have an extra EDM or 5-axis CNC laying around dedicated to prototyping work.

2 BIG advantages from reducing machine time

There are two reasons for cutting down on expensive machine time are a big advantage.

  1. Faster prototype turn-around
    Most companies we work with have a 2-10 week lead time to get prototype parts internally. Because of the complexity of so many components used in optics, the lead time is often even longer.
  2. Dedicated Production
    Maybe you are one of the few companies that do not need to interrupt production to make prototype components. If so, congratulations! If not, every hour that is spent making a prototype on a 5-axis machine is costing the company money and threatening delivery deadlines. Five-axis machining time is typically valued at $150-$500/hr.

To be completely clear (optics joke?), a hybrid manufacturing strategy for making prototypes will not make sense for a lot of industries. However, it CAN work for industries such as optics and medical devices. This is because they often need relatively small and very complex metal parts. The level of complexity that is demanded is the key to making this strategy viable.

Key take-aways

Hybrid manufacturing that leverages 3D printing and traditional machining can accelerate prototyping processes. Optics companies are ideally positioned to take advantage of this strategy due to the complexity of the parts they need to manufacture.

If you’re interested in learning more about how metal 3D printing can help create complex metal components, check out this case study from Alpha Precision Group.

Is your business producing small or complex metal parts? Read about how Alpha Precision Group incorporated metal 3D printing to save 83% vs. their standard manufacturing costs.