»NOT A REPLACEMENT – A SENSIBLE ADDITION «
Interview: Thomas Masuch; Photos: Arburg
Arburg's freeformer represents the company's first foray into the world of additive manufacturing. To discuss the technologies and other innovations coming from this family-run Swabian concern, we sat down with Eberhard Lutz, who heads the freeformer sales department.
Mr. Lutz, Arburg is a traditional mechanical engineering company. Could you describe what makes it different from purely »additive« companies? Where are these differences most apparent?
LUTZ: As a family-run German firm with a great deal of expertise in plastics, our customers’ long-term success is more important to us than selling our machines as quickly as possible. That's why we only deliver to those regions of the world where we can guarantee our proven level of service. In technological terms, I think the biggest difference – along with our openness to various materials – lies in the quality of our machines. For freeformer, we use a lot of high-quality components that also go into our injection molding machines, such as control boxes, plastification units, and control systems.
We develop and manufacture the key components of our machines at our main production location in Loßburg. Since we've enabled freeformer to produce the same quality we've achieved in mechanical engineering, it's offers a much higher level of component precision than conventional 3D printers.
»The main advantage of our open system is that users can opt for lots of different amorphous injection-molding granulates to produce not just mockups, but real functional components.«
How do you ensure a certain level of repeatable quality when customers can use whatever materials they want?
LUTZ: In »batch-of-one« additive manufacturing, the predictability of a component's quality characteristics is a major topic in general. Component quality depends on a range of variable slice and process parameters, after all. In the additive manufacturing of »real« functional components, mechanical factors like tensile strength, tear resistance, and density – or changes in the chemistry of base materials – are of central importance.
Every material used with freeformer is certified in advance, which is how we calculate our pre-optimized process data. To build quality parts, working temperature and temperature resistance are also essential. Many customers handle that themselves, but we’re happy to support them with our extensive database on ABS, PA 12, PC, TPU, and other materials.
What gave Arburg the idea to get into the additive space, and how did the industry react?
LUTZ: The first rumblings about producing synthetic parts without molds started at Arburg back in 2004. In recent years, requirements have been trending toward shorter product life cycles, increased variant diversity, and the desire for customized products. The idea of »flying plastic droplets« led to some initial concepts and basic experiments, which then resulted in patent applications for the Arburg Plastic Freeforming (APF) process.
Our cooperation with a renowned university in the field of droplet generation began in 2007; three years later, we produced our first components. After unveiling freeformer for the first time in 2013, we started selling it around the world in 2015. The industry was thrilled to see a mechanical engineering company like Arburg, which also knows everything there is to know about working with plastics, get into additive manufacturing and bring a machine to market.
What kind of savings can users expect when it comes to prices?
LUTZ: One big advantage of freeformer is that it works with certified standard granulate and generally doesn’t produce any waste. It's also possible to wash off any support material. The types of granulate in question, which are also used in injection molding, cost just a fraction of what rolls of plastic filament do, for example. Plus, our waste-free system needs very small amounts when working with expensive special materials.
Should users do their own shopping, or bring in a consultant or service provider? Does the option to choose your own material come with any other advantages?
LUTZ: Among other things, that depends on how much you need of a given material. Customers from the injection molding industry generally have their own material on hand, which they can also use in the APF process as long as it's clean and dust-free. As I mentioned, the main advantage of our open system is that users can opt for lots of different amorphous injection- molding granulates to produce not just mockups, but real functional components. The items we've produced with freeformer include electrical plugs made of a fireproof PC/ABS blend, implants made of medical PLA, and air ducts made of PC that's certified for aerospace applications. These are things conventional 3D printers can’t do.
How much of a priority is the APF process at your company?
LUTZ: We see a lot of future potential in freeformer, and we’re expecting additive manufacturing to grow even more important in general. That’s why the APF process is going to be an integral part of our executive strategy going forward. As an area, it falls within the technical purview of Dr. Eberhard Duffner, who's also responsible for our entire development division. Meanwhile, I'm the department head responsible for selling freeformer around the world. This configuration underscores how important additive manufacturing is to Arburg's future strategy.
What's the ratio of start-ups to more traditional companies among Arburg's customers?
LUTZ: Well, freeformer is especially interesting to those who use a variety of materials, can and want to work with an open system, and have expertise they can employ in working with plastics and special basic materials. It's amazing how many of our traditional customers in injection molding have a need for machines that produce small batches and individual components.
Those who work with plastics are using more additive techniques in their own manufacturing, as well – as a fast, flexible means of producing operating equipment like assembly fixtures and gripping devices for automation purposes, for example. In addition, freeformer has met with a lot of interest from well-known universities and research institutes, along with various material manufacturers. Start-ups are a rather marginal group within our customer base.
Do your customers see freeformer as more of a supplement to their existing machinery, or are there some for which freeformer is replacing traditional injection molding in some cases?
LUTZ: 3D printing technology is opening up new possibilities in the processing of plastics and finding its way into industrial applications. Interest in freeformer continues to grow – not only in Europe, but in the United States and China, as well. Custom-made plastic components for consumer products, medical implants, and functional spare parts are just a few of the many areas for which our open additive-manufacturing system is a perfect fit. That said, freeformer and additive manufacturing in general won’t replace injection molding in the next five, 10, or even 50 years. What it will be is a sensible addition to conventional techniques.
Arburg just recently opened its own center for creating prototype components. How long does it usually take to reach the testing phase and deliver a machine after a request is received, you might ask? How does this process generally play out?
LUTZ: Well, two phases are involved: The first involves creating the prototype component to determine whether it meets the requirements at hand and is suited to freeformer. After that, an order can be placed. The time required for delivery depends on the customer and how busy we are in production and assembly at that moment. We can complete the entire process in the space of three months, though.
Before we go, could you give us a few examples of how products are customized?
LUTZ: Well, in trackable »smart« products, we’ve showcased things like personalized office scissors, light switches, and luggage tags. In each case, freeformer customizes an injection-molded variant that's normally produced in large quantities by using an additive technique to apply a plastic graphic or set of letters selected by the customer as 3D geometry. In medical technology, we've created individually fitted implants and ortheses, as well as models for operation preparations. One of the innovative materials we use there is resorbable polylactide (Resomer PLA), which dissolves in the body after a certain amount of time.
Mr. Lutz, thank you for taking the time to talk with us.
Arburg, a family-run German company, is one of the world's leading manufacturers of machines designed to process plastics. It operates in 33 locations in 25 countries through organizations it owns, and in more than 50 countries through various trade partners. Arburg's production activities, however, take place solely at its core plant in Loßburg, Germany. The company employs some 2,200 people in its home country, and around another 500 at its organizations abroad.
Arburg’s freeformer applies melted plastic granulate to a given substrate in droplet form. The temperature in the modeling area is adapted to the material in question to optimize the droplet agglomeration process. »This enables us to achieve stability levels corresponding to 80-90% of what we see in injection molding,« Eberhard Lutz reports. The two application units in freeformer make it possible to create a support structure or produce components using two different materials or colors.