Five years ago we wanted to further develop the capability of the engineering group to generate innovative solutions for the improvement of equipment performance and to support the drive for continuous improvement (CI).
Normally the biggest barrier to this type of work is the high cost and time associated with designing and testing prototype solutions during the development process. Costs can quickly escalate if you need to go through a number of design cycles in order to achieve the final optimal solution – and there is always the risk that the final solution will not be achieved.
In order to lower the costs and reduce the risk of this type of work, we decided to take a two pronged approach. Firstly, we introduced 3D design software to site and trained our technicians and engineers in its use. This allowed our existing staff to take full ownership of the design process without the need to rely on expensive outside consultants. Secondly we purchased a 3D printer which facilitated the production of plastic prototypes for our new designs quickly and cheaply.
3D printing (or additive manufacturing) is the process of making three dimensional solid objects from a digital file. The creation of a 3D printed object is achieved using additive processes, i.e. – an object is created by laying down successive layers of material until the entire object is created. Each of these layers can be seen as a thinly sliced horizontal cross-section of the eventual object. There are several methods for doing this, but we use stereo lithography (SLA). This technology uses a reservoir of liquid ultraviolet curable photopolymer resin and an ultraviolet laser to build the object’s layers one at a time. For each layer, the laser beam traces a cross-section of the part pattern on the surface of the liquid resin. Exposure to the ultraviolet laser light cures and solidifies the pattern traced on the resin and joins it to the layer below until the object is complete.
The strategy of introducing 3D design and printing capabilities to our engineering team has led to a sharp increase in the number of successful improvement projects that we have been able to do on site. A good example would be a project we carried out on our sachet filler machines. We designed and implemented a brand new design for the sachet transfer grippers two years ago. This new design has helped in greatly increasing the reliability of machine; and as a result our production outputs. The savings achieved by using the 3D design and printings versus the traditional method was calculated at €32,000 for this single project.
In order to further enhance our capability in the design area and reduce the barriers to developing innovative solutions the company is currently investing in 3D scanning technology. 3D laser scanners measure fine details and capture free form shapes to quickly generate highly accurate point clouds. It is ideally suited to the measurement and inspection of contoured surfaces and complex geometries which requires massive amounts of data for their accurate description which cannot be completed using traditional measurement methods. It also vastly reduces the time required to generate the images for both complex and basic objects.
Technology in this area is advancing at a very rapid rate and as a result the cost associated with its implementation is also dropping. We expect that current emerging technology, such a printers that can produce 3D printed steel parts, will soon be more affordable and freely available. We believe that the capabilities that we are building on our site will place us in a position to take full advantage of this revolution in engineering.