It is a well-worn trope to discuss how rather than usurping traditional manufacturing methods, 3D printing is actually improving them. We’ve seen countless case studies from jewellers using wax-based stereolithoghraphy resins in order to cast exquisitely beautiful rings in precious metals with geometries that simply could not be achieved using any other technology.
There’s also been some eye-catching news this year from Stratasys who were keen to showcase their partnership with the world’s largest fast moving consumer goods manufacturer, Unilever. That particular case study showcased how Unilever used Stratasys technologies to create moulds for injection-moulded prototypes thus cutting lead times by staggering amounts.
“Before, we would have to wait several weeks to receive prototype parts using our traditional tooling process; not only would this lengthen lead times, it would also increase costs if iterations were required,” explained Stefano Cademartiri, R&D, CAD and Prototyping Specialist at Unilever back in January. “With 3D printing we’re now able to apply design iterations to the mould within a matter of hours, enabling us to produce prototype parts in final materials such as polypropylene, 40% faster than before.”
But the adoption of 3D printing to speed up traditional manufacturing processes doesn’t stop at high-end Stratasys and 3D Systems machinery, as one of the world’s leading underwear manufacturers, Anita Dr. Helbig GmbH, has showcased by integrating German RepRap technology into their production line.
Since their inception in 1886 the underwear company’s USP has always been extreme comfort and fit across their range of women’s underwear. From sports bras to post surgery prosthesis the four words Anita stands for are: fit, function, look and comfort. In order to improve those keys aspects of their brand and keep the cost to the consumer down, Anita has turned to a machine that costs as little as €2649 in order to produce moulds.
“The moulds have been changing all the time and we need tools for 10 different types in 100 different sizes”, says Anita’s Managing Director Georg Weber-Unger Junior. Traditionally Anita used a wooden template to create a fibreglass prototype that was mirrored by a manual process to create an aluminium mould to pour the silicone into – a process that could take in excess of 14 days. “The two sides were never absolutely identical”, the MD recalls
Since purchasing a German RepRap X400 Machine Anita have set about creating a process that is not only quicker but has a cost saving of up to 50%. The original aluminium moulds are 3D scanned and adapted using CAD software to create a 3D printable model. The resulting PLA model is then cast with sand and a foundry then turns that into the required aluminium mould to shape the end product.
The fact that a world renowned company like Anita, which employs in excess of 1500 employees, is adopting a process like this with a technology that costs so little to install bodes well for a raft of desktop machinery hoping to find its own niche in the market.