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Making gear prototypes 84 times faster using new production techniques

VCST, based in the Belgian province of Limburg, wanted to know if there was a faster way of manufacturing prototype gears for its customers while retaining its trademark high level of precision. To this end, it successfully teamed up with Sirris to compare four alternative production methods.

The challenge | Making more prototypes faster

VCST, a company from Sint-Truiden (Belgium) which manufactures gears and powertrain components for the automotive industry, was looking for faster ways to produce prototypes. Until recently, it used manufacturing machinery fitted with customised tools to do this, but this had the drawback of long lead times (12 weeks on average).

In a bid to become more versatile and present various prototypes to customers more quickly, VCST sought out techniques that were completely different from traditional milling and grinding. In its search the company was confronted with a number of technical difficulties. To overcome these for which it teamed up with Sirris.

The solution | Alternative production techniques

Along with Sirris, VCST examined and compared four alternative production techniques: the innovative selective laser melting (SLM) technique, ultrasonic supported grinding, wire electrical discharge machining (wire EDM) and five-axis milling. Experts in both advanced manufacturing and precision technology worked on this, starting out from a computer-aided design (CAD) drawing of the required gear prototype and then moving on to compare the preparations needed (programming, assembly, aids, etc.) for each chosen production technology.

The gear was also actually manufactured, using each of the four processes, and then the best end result for each technology was compared with the proposed design. As well as the speed, this stage involved evaluating whether the requirements in terms of dimensions, materials and form could be achieved, how precise the result would be, and what the operation would cost.

The result | Flexible milling within 24 hours

All of the technologies investigated allow VCST to make gear prototypes within 24 hours, so 84 times faster than the current lead time. Flexible milling in particular emerged as a promising technique. As a result, the gear manufacturer can present various prototypes to customers at the same time, with differing dimensions, varying numbers of teeth, and so on, marking VCST out already from the development stage as a quality partner that comes up with high-precision products.

The results of the tests and research are now used to specifically define how VCST will create new types of proto-parts, and the company may collaborate further with Sirris in future to develop an even faster prototype production process.