By Olivia Cahoon
Manufacturers invest in three-dimensional (3D) printing for cost-effective, functional prototypes in a variety of shapes, materials, and colors. Newer technologies are designed not only for functional purposes, but to also produce photo-realistic models.
3D printing technology is especially beneficial for markets based in imagination and creativity, like the toy industry. Established 30 years ago, Spanish research technology center AIJU specializes in the creation and development of toys, children’s products, and leisure items. The center brings together design and manufacturing experts from across the country with an objective to help children’s product manufacturers become more competitive.
“We have affiliated companies with very different backgrounds,” comments Nacho Sandoval, head of prototyping, AIJU. “We advise companies such as toy brands, plastic product manufacturers, sports companies, and molding manufacturers on becoming more efficient along the supply chain.”
Above: The Stratasys J750 allows AIJU to work closely with kZoomi-a swimming materials manufacturers launching a new float to help individuals with swimming difficulties.
The 3D Playing Field
AIJU is committed to adopting the necessary technologies for increased efficiency in product development. In a bid to reduce costs and lead time for its customers, the center aspires to use the latest cutting-edge technologies. Most of its work involves producing prototypes and injection molds for children’s products. However, complying with rigorous industry quality standards presents a challenge when introducing new technology.
“Products designed for children are very much protected by the law. The production quality standards are as strict as the alimentary industry. It is an extremely complicated matter for companies who want to innovate,” advises Sandoval. As a result, AIJU is selective when it comes to adopting new technologies and innovations for product development.
The center’s venture into 3D printing started two decades ago with the purchase of a selective laser sintering (SLS) based 3D printer. With this technology, the company immediately gained more visibility into the manufacturing industry and subsequently opened its own additive manufacturing division. According to Sandoval, this was a significant milestone for AIJU’s business as it was the second company in Spain to acquire a 3D printer. “Our SLS 3D printer was a key part of our prototyping, however the process was costly and time intensive, while the level of precision was not always sufficient for some projects.”
To further innovate development, AIJU invested in a PolyJet 3D printer from Stratasys reseller Comher in 2005. It later acquired a Stratasys Objet Connex 3D printer in 2010, which 3D prints parts in multiple materials. According to Sandoval, the Connex eradicates time-consuming assembly processes associated with its previous prototyping methods.
For example, the company produces large runs of plastic boxes composed of flexible and rigid plastics to store food. This was a laborious task before installing the Connex. “We had to separate parts during CAD and 3D print each one individually to obtain two types of plastic textures. Now we can print the entire container in one go, mixing rigid and flexible materials on the fly, which has enabled us to slash lead times and give the designers more freedom to produce better quality products,” admits Sandoval.
AIJU also extended the use of its Connex 3D printer beyond prototyping into the production of both silicon and inject molds. “Producing faster, shorter runs and more innovative product lines is paramount to staying competitive,” comments Sandoval.
Expanded Design Capabilities
With its expanded manufacturing capabilities AIJU received demands for more realistic and complex prototypes, requiring a range of shapes, materials, and colors. In 2016, the center invested in a Stratasys J750 3D printer to combine full color and multiple materials in a single print.
“Our main objective was to improve the precision and quality of finishing our prototypes,” admits Sandoval.
The Stratasys J750’s 500,000 color combinations are a result of Stratasys’ new vivid color package, accurate color matching, and advanced clear with texture functionality. According to Zehavit Reisin, VP/head of solutions and materials business, Stratasys, this enables users to create prototypes that look, feel, and operate like finished products.
With the ability to load up to six materials at once—including any combination of rigid, flexible, transparent, or opaque materials and their components—the Stratasys J750 enables users to mix and match full-color gradients.
It features double printhead nozzles, allowing users to produce ultra-smooth surfaces and fine details with full-color capability, texture mapping, and color gradients. Automatic color mapping creates photo-realistic models from neutrals to neon, shadows, and highlights. “Prototypes featuring rigid, transparent, and flexible parts can be produced without the need to assemble each material part or finish/paint post-print,” offers Reisin.
As a result, AIJU streamlines its prototype production from several steps to one. Previously, the center 3D printed the parts, hand or water painted, and then assembled each part to obtain the final prototype. “Now, in one single print we produce a full-color, multi-material prototype—transforming the economics of our process,” continues Sandoval.
The Stratasys J750 allows AIJU to work closely with kZoomi—a swimming materials manufacturer launching a new float to help individuals with swimming difficulties. The center 3D printed a series of functional prototypes in multiple materials simulating the final product and enabling kZoomi to test the float in real conditions to improve buoyancy and hydrodynamic design. The ability to consolidate several assembly and post-processing stages into one simultaneous print allowed AIJU to verify the design with the customer and complete the final prototype in six days.
“kZoomi tried alternative prototyping methods, however the results were poor. It was impossible to get the right colors and the high resolution needed for the handles,” comments Sandoval. Without the Stratasys J750, the manufacturing process would have been more expensive with longer lead times.
Certain 3D printers combine rigid and flexible materials in one print run. This provides the ability to create realistic and complex products in a range of colors and materials—giving manufacturers a competitive edge.
Feb2019, Industrial Print Magazine