Arburg GmbH + Co KG became the first — and so far the only — injection molding manufacturer to produce a 3-D printer, at the K show in 2013. The company began taking orders in its home country of Germany at Fakuma 2014.
Customers have lined up to buy one of the company's Freeformers, but Arburg so far has rolled the machine out in a targeted way, making sure the Freeformer can meet specific requirements of the potential customer.
Now that Fakuma has rolled around again, how has the Freeformer done in its first full year of actual sales?
Heinz Gaub, Arburg's managing director of technology and engineering, answered some questions posed by Plastics News.
Q: At the 2014 Fakuma, you said you had started taking orders for Germany. Sales were to follow in April 2015 to the rest of Europe, and after the NPE 2015, to the United States. Freeformer sales to Asia were to follow Chinaplas this year. Did that schedule end up happening?
Gaub: Yes, this spring, as planned, we successfully launched the Freeformer in differentiated strategies both in Europe and overseas.
The NPE and Chinaplas offered us the perfect forums to present the new product, enabling us to make contact with plastics processors from beyond the injection molding industry. There is a definite demand for the production of fully functional parts from qualified standard granulates without requiring a mold, whether as one-off parts or in small-volume batches.
The feedback we have received has been excellent and we have already delivered the first Freeformers internationally, including to the United States and China.
In addition to the market launch at the most important trade fairs worldwide, some of our subsidiaries — for example in Denmark, France and the United Kingdom — have also organized their own events to launch the product which have been very well received.
Q: In 2014, you said you plan to sell “in the three-digit number” of Freeformers in 2015. So that would be 100 — did that happen? How many Freeformers have been sold so far?
Gaub: Enough to be able to tell you that we are satisfied with the first six months after the sales launch. Interest in our innovative system for industrial additive manufacturing is still enormous. However, selling as many systems as possible as quickly as possible is not our goal. Instead we aim to develop a future-oriented, long-term technological solution. For that reason we are currently selling the Freeformer in a very targeted way, testing the ground in advance to be sure that the machine can meet the requirements of the potential customer in terms of material and geometry.
At Fakuma, Arburg showed more than just the Freeformer on its own. Instead the company combined the Freeformer with its Allrounder injection molding machines as part of a cell.
One highlight: A very flexible automation system showing a six-axis Kuka robot loading and unloading a Freeformer.
Visitors saw “mass customization” by combining injection molding and additive manufacturing, integrated together with technologies from Industry 4.0.
“We have been working on the subject of Industry 4.0 for some time now,” said Arburg's Managing Partner Juliane Hehl. “With automated Allrounders, the Freeformer for additive manufacturing and IT solutions, we are increasingly developing ourselves into a production system supplier for integrated production in the digital factory. In Friedrichshafen, we …[showed] how mass-production parts can be customized and traced back in a part-specific way in practice using industrial additive manufacturing.”
Stand guests were able to make unique versions of office scissors. First, an electric Allrounder 370 molded the handles onto stainless-steel blades. An individual code then laser-etched onto the scissors, and then customized in 2-D or 3-D lettering from a laser or a Freeformer.
A Multilift V robot inserted the scissors into a carrier and moved them out of the production cell on a conveyor belt. Then, a scanner checked whether the scissors are to be issued to directly to the visitor, or if 3-D lettering was to be applied in a further step on the Freeformer.
The robot then handed the finished scissors to each visitor — uniquely individualized.
Hehl is promised that Arburg's exhibit would “astonish visitors.”
A second example of networked manufacturing is a Freeformer tied to injection molded, rocker-type light switches with a customized symbol/name combination, in large-volume production.
The Arburg ALS host computer system documents all process parameters and sends the information to a web server. A web page displaying all relevant data can be opened using mobile devices — to track every part.