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Festo AG

For more information on the FinGripper.

Engineers looking for quick prototypes or a few custom parts often face limited choices: build them in-house or seek out a rapid-manufacturing service. Now Festo AG, a major supplier of pneumatic and electromechanical components and systems, offers customers another option.

The Esslingen, Germanybased company recently established the Festo Fast Factory, a service that includes a range of rapid-manufacturing equipment, along with a staff of engineers and technicians.

Founded in 2009, the Fast Factory builds customer prototypes and parts, along with products for new-product development within Festo. It also handles small-series production, serving as a secondary parts source or alternative manufacturing approach — in some cases, creating parts that would not be possible or economically viable if made using other methods.

The goal, according to Klaus Müller-Lohmeier, head of advanced prototyping technology at Festo, is to support the company’s R&D efforts, but also help customers get products to market faster.

The group relies on four rapid- prototyping technologies: selective laser sintering of plastics and other materials, laser melting for metals such as aluminum, fused-deposition manufacturing or FDM for polymer products, and EDM wire cutting.

These manufacturing methods create prototypes with all the properties of mass-produced products, says Müller-Lohmeier. But parts are fabricated quickly and economically because the processes require no expensive, complex tooling or molds. They are especially advantageous when there are many product variants.

The ultimate goal, he explains, is to make parts and finished products in hours or days, instead of weeks or months. By designing products with the customer, from sharing 3D models and simulations to making prototypes, speed becomes a competitive advantage for the customer. “We can quickly create sample components” and use them to illustrate special designs and alternative solutions, explains Müller-Lohmeier.

The types of parts they make vary. Recent examples include:
• Pilot valves for a control unit. Based on the 3D concept model, they generated five units in two days.
• Quick turnaround of nonstandard pneumatic cylinders. FFF delivered, in less than three days, a series of alternative cylinder-body geometries the customer could quickly install and evaluate.
• For a design study, they manufactured a valve housing using SLS, then functional aluminum valve components using SLM. The parts, measuring up to 145 × 65 × 50 mm, have a 99.5% material density, and were delivered in three days. The same parts would have taken eight months to make using die casting.
• Additive fabrication of 12,000 polymer snap-fits. Compared to plastic injection molding, the parts were delivered in two weeks versus two months, at about two-thirds the cost.

FFF is also aiding Festo R&D, says Müller-Lohmeier, particularly for molded parts. One example is the bionic FinGripper, a gripper based on a fish fin, fabricated by selective laser sintering. 0.1-mm-thin layers of plastic powder were precisely applied to a base and fused by laser, progressively building the final component. This reduced weight by 90% compared with traditional metal grippers, so it requires less energy to move and operate. Following the receipt of an internal order, the FFF generated 150 FinGrippers in just 24 hr. A key consideration, says Müller-Lohmeier, was that the FinGripper could not be economically produced with conventional techniques.

Additive manufacturing liberates design engineers from restrictions imposed by traditional manufacturing methods. This kind of design freedom and flexibility are leading to “design-driven manufacturing, not manufacturing-driven design,” he emphasizes.

Currently, more than 40% of the Festo Fast Factory’s production goes to outside customers. In the first year, the unit produced more than 1,000 customer prototypes, 5,700 parts for R&D within the company, and 12,800 small-lot production parts for external sale. This generated total revenue of about 750,000 Euro.

© 2011 Penton Media, Inc.