ESPOO, Finland—Engineers at the VTT Technical Research Centre here recently developed a process to print smart shafts. It combines metal additive manufacturing, sensor technology, wireless data transfer and condition monitoring in the same package.

“In the application, sensors form a functional part of the 3D-printed metal structure,” says Pasi Puukko, VTT research team leader. “[This shows} that a range of sensors or smart identifications can be added to printed metal parts during manufacture.

“This manufacturing method will enable the creation of new business models and provide a competitive edge in developing artificial intelligence,” claims Puukko. “Potential applications include tracking the performance and condition of machines or verifying the authenticity of parts.

“[It could provide engineers] with a much higher degree of freedom compared to traditional manufacturing methods,” adds Puukko. “For example, a device with a wear-measuring sensor [could] provide up-to-date information, allowing any necessary maintenance to begin automatically, without breaks in production.

“We embedded an accelerometer and the necessary wiring into a 3D-printed metal shaft for a friction bearing,” explains Puukko. “In addition, electronics that enable wireless communication were installed on the bearing.

“We were able to demonstrate the reliability of the shaft’s measurement technology and data transfer on a bearing test bench,” adds Puukko. “The rapid collection and use of accurate data markedly increases when it is directly transferred from the component to the cloud wirelessly. This will enable us to take the next big step toward artificial intelligence.”