10/17/2017 20:53:00 CEST A new additive production process is becoming established alongside 3D-printing: with patch placement, high-tech machine manufacturer Manz is opening up new design possibilities and providing a key building block for the self-organizing production of the future.
Marc Schmidt will probably have to wear the orthotic for a few weeks after his sports accident. His medical walking aid is supposed to be delivered tomorrow by courier. The orthopedist just scanned Schmidt’s leg today and sent the data to the manufacturer via e-mail: dimensions, weight, requested color, and the maximum mobility permitted to allow for the healing process. Just a short time later, the “Marc Schmidt edition” orthotic rolls off the line at a southwest German medical technology manufacturer's facility. It’s built layer by layer, in the truest sense of the word. A one-of-a-kind, fully automatic.
Patch placement is the process recently developed by Manz for this kind of production: flexible materials off the roll are laser-cut into the contours – so-called patches – that customers need. These patches are then combined in an additive layering principle, for instance using laser welding. Patch placement is used not only in medical technology, but also in customized mass production in the shoe industry, or in producing custom-tailored sports equipment. Automotive industry and aircraft construction applications are currently in development. For example, in order to locally reinforce the material structure around drill holes for attachments or rivets.
Significantly faster than 3D printing
Any “processable,” flexible material such as textile fibers, plastic and metallized foils, or fiber composite materials like carbon composites can be handled. Patch placement can be used to shape these into geometrically complex structures – with the best possible stability and the lowest possible material use and weight: patch placement only applies a thicker layer in areas exposed to increased mechanical strain, fulfilling the highest demands for lightweight construction.
There's almost no material waste, and different materials and colors can be combined “from the roll,” or to put it more precisely, from multiple rolls without having to go through complex plant conversion processes. While tactile and visual properties are important on the surface of a product, for example, stiffer materials with a specific texture can be used inside.
The advantage that patch placement has over 3D printing is that it allows for much higher material throughput and shorter production cycles.
More than just prototyping
“Patch placement offers new kinds of design freedoms and goes beyond rapid prototyping,” says Dr. Martin Steyer, who heads the area of Integrated Solutions at Manz. “I see three main advantages for designers: first, with its freely programmable axes, patch placement facilitates an extremely broad diversity of complex and highly integrated product geometries. Undercuts, cavities, or fluid flows in any layer – anything is possible. Without re-clamping, without having to assemble components.
Dr. Martin Steyer, Head of the area of Integrated Solutions at Manz AG in Reutlingen:
"With its freely programmable axes, patch placements allows designers to create an enormous variety of complex and highly integrated product geometries.
In addition, it allows them to combine materials with very different properties. Concepts can be ready for mass production right away if designers are working with the same equipment as production does."
The second big advantage is that they can combine materials with very different properties. For example, porous materials can be integrated into a component if coolant needs to be directed close to a very specific spot. And finally, designers will have to do less worrying about whether their concepts will be ready for mass production if they're working with the same equipment as production does.
Patch placement plants are built to be autonomous, so they can be easily integrated into existing production lines. Of course, the production line has to be fully digitized. That's the only way to produce customer-specific products like mass-production products (also known as mass customization) and significantly accelerate their delivery cycles. Another feature of patch placement becomes relevant in achieving this goal: the process is not tied to tool shapes, and can be converted through purely software-controlled processes.
For Martin Steyer from Manz, that means the highly flexible process is a key building block in self-organizing production lines. These allow even small quantities to be manufactured reliably and inexpensively, and facilitate model changes in real time: “The patch placement process is useful for any manufacturer that is having a hard time managing a large number of different versions of its products and that places high demands on flexibility in production.”
In conjunction with web-based developer platforms or product configurators, digital material databases, and logic-based sample production, in the future it will be possible to involve external developers and even customers and consumers in the production process much more directly. That means terms like “networked production” or “open source” have a much broader meaning than before. Freely configurable patch placement as a building block for customized mass production could even lead production to move closer to customers once again in many industries. That’s a good opportunity for products “Made in Germany,” which offer local, networked production.