The copper printer
Ralf Gärtner and his colleagues can do something that many businesses can only dream of: they can print highly conductive structures from copper coils in just five working days. “This can take up to ten weeks, using traditional methods”, says Gärtner. How do he and his team do it? They are not telling. All they will say is that it involves specialized knowledge of processes, materials and machines.7 Sep 2018
Gärtner heads Protiq, the latest spin-off from Phoenix Contact, and also gets a little help from the parent company when it comes to electronics know-how.
“We supply many sectors of industry with various printing materials, but we see great growth potential in electronics production,” says the entrepreneur from Eastern Westphalia, Germany. The additive manufacturing industry is developing massive printing capacities worldwide, and analysts are predicting potential sales worth billions. So as Gärtner sees it, specialization is in demand. Protiq is a service provider, producing to order for customers as far away as the USA and India. From interfacing with the customer online to planning the work schedule, everything at Protiq is automated, but human intervention is still needed for some tasks, such as clearing the assembly space, removing the finished product from the printer, finishing it, and forwarding it for despatch. “We are working towards full automation, and talking to numerous manufacturers of automation systems”, assures Gärtner. The company plans to develop digital value-adding chains, understand how they work, and then create interfaces. “Only then will additive manufacturing and 3D printing become economically viable in the long term in high-wage countries too”, says Gärtner, who trained as a mechanical engineer.
The digital value-adding chain has a key role to play if additive manufacturing is to succeed. “Sending quotations and orders back and forth as pdf files would be time-consuming, and it would only make the whole process unnecessarily complicated”, believes Gärtner. So is Protiq an example of the platform economy in industry? “I’m always a bit sceptical myself, because I don’t think designers will be willing to work online, on third-party platforms, and divulge their development data. That’s still a long way off when I see how many confidentiality agreements we have to sign every day before designers will upload critical manufacturing data to our platform in order to get a direct online quotation from us”, says the Protiq CEO with a laugh.
The company employs over 20 people, and Gärtner has no shortage of skilled staff himself. “But we need to do more in the way of training. We have engineers and skilled technicians working for us, and many of them can design things for traditional manufacturing methods, but not for additive manufacturing. Furthermore, the finishing work required for printed materials presents new challenges to our employees. So we need to address these things at the training stage”, he warns. He is currently having meetings with government officials and representatives of industry associations. “Networked digitization is changing our factories, our processes and our job profiles”, Gärtner points out. And now SMEs are discovering additive manufacturing for themselves. Protiq prints machine parts and gear wheels, and wants to make life easier for industrial companies. “We shall be launching an online topology optimizer in the near future, designed to make lightweight construction easy. The customer gets a quotation for uploading his data set to the platform, marks design areas and non-design areas, defines the forces and stresses to which the construction may be subjected, and the algorithmics we use reduce the material requirement within 24 hours.”
At present, this takes about two weeks according to Gärtner. In addition to specialized knowledge of processes, materials, machining and design, Protiq also needs IT experts, therefore. Additive manufacturing, combined with networked digitization, is what Industrie 4.0 is really all about. That means developing new products and tools, testing new business models, learning about new materials and their properties, operating new hardware, relearning the business of product design, automating the process chain, integrating it into a network with full customer access, and digitizing it. It can’t get much more complex than that.
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