Innovations Right Out of the 3D Printer
Designing tools as-needed and printing them on demand — it sounds like “Mission Imprintable” or a fantasy, but it’s part of daily life for the 3D printing experts at Audi. Audi author Sina Feirer learned how the team works and how quickly the innovations from the 3D printer can be put into use during her print-it-yourself experience.
In the heart of the Audi R8 factory in the Böllinger Höfe, there’s a futuristic hotspot: the 3D printing center in the startup/analysis center. This is where I meet Waldemar Hirsch and Cem Gülaylar, the Audi 3D printing experts. My goal for the day: with their help, I want to design and print an auxiliary tool that I will put into the hands of a production employee only hours later.
The innovation factory: the 3D printer
For five years, they’ve been boldly printing what no one has printed before: each day, at least one auxiliary tool leaves the 3D printing center. The printed positioning guides, safety devices, and casting molds made by Waldemar’s team help their colleagues in the production department — quickly, inexpensively, and on-demand. The team has been so successful in their work that they will soon be founding their own department on-site, where they will really be able to get things going. The goal: a worldwide 3D printing network for the Volkswagen concern that will supply employees in all locations with printed innovations.
An overview of 3D Printing
Among experts, 3D printing is known as "additive manufacturing.” Layer for layer, the 3D printer lays down the material to create new components. In contrast to traditional production methods, the material is applied bit by bit, rather than being removed as in milling, drilling, turning, or eroding. Materials such as plastic or metal are used.
A printed solution for every problem
It’s time to start the print-it-yourself attempt. We meet Marco, an employee from the Audi R8 assembly line. He explains his problem to us: during the subassembly of the brake calipers, a sensor needs to be screwed into place. An insertion aid that is specially designed for the sensor would make the subassembly considerably quicker and easier. No sooner said than printed! Almost, anyway. Now I’m faced with the most challenging part of the process: designing the piece to be printed in 3D.
Every piece is unique
Everything that Waldemar and Cem make is one of a kind. They custom-make each and every auxiliary tool to meet a specific need, without templates. So we first head to the Tech.Lab in the team’s creative workshop to measure the part. Thanks to their many years of experience, Waldemar and Cem know exactly what matters in the design process: precision, simplicity, and user-friendliness. On the basis of the measurements, we then draw a 3D model of the auxiliary tool in a CAD (computer-aided design) program. With its help, we go from a sketch to virtual reality in just over 20 minutes. Our one-of-a-kind plastic part begins its journey.
Printing the wonderful world of Audi
The 3D printer is still missing the most important piece of the puzzle: the right filament, or “plastic thread.” We decide on PLA (polylactide) plastic. It is sturdy, inexpensive, and easy to print with, which makes it the perfect material for our assembly aid. We also choose a bright orange plastic thread, which will make it easier to find the small auxiliary tool in the assembly hall whenever it is needed. We insert the 3D printer filament and bring it up to working temperature. With delicate movements, the 220°C nozzle flies back and forth across the printing plate, building up the layers.
Out of the printer and onto the assembly line
The 3D printer beeps. The auxiliary tool is finished—after only 90 minutes! It’s still a bit warm, and it feels smooth and incredibly light. When you look closer, you can still just barely see the individual printed layers. A masterpiece! And it’s even ready to use straight out of the printer, since it doesn’t need to cure. We bring the 3D printed auxiliary tool to Marco, who immediately tests it out. The installation goes perfectly; he is thrilled with his new tool.
From Neckarsulm to the world of 3D printing
It seems like anything is possible — uh, printable — in Neckarsulm. By locally producing the auxiliary tools, Audi saves itself long waiting times and long-haul shipping. Aside from that, the use of these printed innovations give them more flexibility as well as the ability to act quickly and with agility — and that’s what matters in day-to-day business. 3D printing has advantages for the company, but it is especially valuable for the employees. That’s because, when all is said and done, the 3D printed tools make their work easier. My personal conclusion: Vorsprung durch 3D printing!