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SMC3D printing turns a blowgun into a vacuum cleaner

As the saying goes: Where wood is chopped, chips must fall. In the case of SMC, however, the problem was not chips, but rather contaminants that needed to be removed efficiently from production workplaces. The solution: a blowgun converted into a vacuum cleaner with the aid of a 3D-printed part.

21. February 2019

With a market share of over 30 percent, SMC is the world market leader in drive and control technology for pneumatic and electrical systems. Its product range comprises 12,000 product groups: air treatment, valves and throttles, drives, fittings and hoses, as well as vacuum and instrumentation components. The group was founded in Japan in 1959 – its headquarters for Central and Eastern Europe are located in Korneuburg.

Gerhard Böhm is Team Lead Engineering Design at SMC. For a customer, he was asked to design a tool to remove impurities from assembly workstations. At the heart of his design was a housing that could only be produced via 3D printing. For this component, he chose 1zu1 as the supplier.

In an interview with Thomas Kohler, 1zu1 sales manager, Markus Schrittwieser, head of Additive Manufacturing, and Lina Ellensohn, project manager, Gerhard Böhm explains exactly what the challenge was, how he solved it, and why he opted for 1zu1.

Mr. Böhm, what were your customer's initial requirements?

Gerhard Böhm: In addition to our standard products, at SMC we also develop and build special components that we „tailor“ for our customers. The goal of this particular project was to efficiently remove dirt that had accumulated in a production workplace, including in some hard-to-reach areas. The installation of a conventional extraction system was deemed too costly and rejected. As a result, the idea came about to build a kind of handheld vacuum cleaner, which works with compressed air, as the latter is already available at the assembly workplace.

How did you proceed with the design?

Some Bulgarian colleagues of mine have already designed a similar tool and built a suction device on a conventional blowgun. However, we wanted to optimize both the ergonomics and functionality of this solution. We thus designed a housing that combines standard components: a blowgun, a vacuum cleaner nozzle, a small air lance and a volumetric flow booster. The compressed air from the blowgun whirls up the dirt via the air lance and the volumetric flow booster generates the suction for the vacuum cleaner's nozzle. It quickly became clear that we couldn't produce this housing at a reasonable cost with conventional manufacturing methods. So we designed a part to be 3D printed.

Where does 1zu1 come into play?

Böhm: We produced the empty housing with our own 3D printer; this was sufficient to determine the basic feasibility and make some optimizations. However, for a small series, such as our customer needs, this approach is not precise enough. I met Thomas Kohler three years ago at the Austrian 3D-Printing Forum in Linz. We got along well right from the start, but had not worked on a joint project until then. As a „small series producer“, I thought 1zu1 would be perfect for the task at hand.

Thomas Kohler: We were in Linz to demonstrate the potential of our additive manufacturing processes. These enable potential customers to develop ideas while searching for solutions that cannot be produced using conventional methods. This is exactly what Gerhard Böhm and his team did, and in an exemplary manner.

Markus Schrittwieser: Gerhard Böhm had his self-printed design for the housing with him when he visited us in Dornbirn. Of course, we liked the fact that the design fully exploits the potential of 3D printing. For example, the large thread at the end of the cylindrical part is easy to print via selective laser sintering. With conventional production methods, the housing would have to be laboriously turned out of the tool every time. A second feature that is only possible with additive manufacturing is an internal compressed air duct that surrounds the entire component. This could not be realized via conventional processes.

What were the next steps?

Lina Ellensohn: We clarified all the intricacies of the design. For example, there is a second, smaller thread in the housing, for which we decided to use manual cutting due to its position. Within five days, we had produced the first five prototypes. After another ten days the entire pre-series of 30 pieces was finished.

Schrittwieser: The pre-series allowed us to test and fix all necessary parameters for small-series production. A controlled process is crucial when it comes to ensuring repeatability. To achieve this, we have to precisely coordinate the personnel, material, machine and environmental conditions. In total, for laser sintering of plastics, more than 200 quality-relevant process parameters must comply with the respective standards. That's why we're also certified by the AMQ.

Ellensohn: After ten more days the first series of 50 pieces was already finished. With injection molding, it takes that long just to manufacture the mold.

Böhm: From the initial inquiry to the delivery notification, everything works like clockwork at 1zu1. As customers, this gives us a good feeling and makes the collaboration enjoyable.

Were there any other good reasons why 1zu1 was the right partner for SMC in this project?

Böhm: Another criterion was that at 1zu1 we could get everything from a single source. Naturally, this helps us to protect our IP.

Kohler: For this project, in addition to the 3D printing and tapping the second thread, heatset impregnation was also necessary in order to dye the housing section black. In this process, the polyamide parts are dyed under pressure and at high temperatures. The advantage of this compared to conventional painting is that no ink is applied. This ensures that the function of the thread is not impaired.

Interviewed: Gerhard Böhm is Team Lead Engineering Design at SMC. Thomas Kohler is the sales manager, Lina Ellensohn a project manager and Markus Schrittwieser head of Additive Manufacturing at 1zu1 in Dornbirn. The interview was conducted by Wolfgang Pendl and Werner Sommer; photos by Darko Todorovic.


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