3D printing to replace mass-production processes

An innovative pioneer of connected medical devices, Withings offers an ideal case study of how integrating additive manufacturing into the development process can result in a healthy business
 Sculpteo's 3D printing service is quick and easy

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Since 2009 Withings has been manufacturing a range of life-style friendly health devices, each wirelessly connected through smart phones and computers to create a well-being eco-system comprising more than 100 partner apps and services.Smart Body Analyzer.jpg

Its most recent product, the Smart Body Analyzer integrates a new air quality sensor that checks the indoor air quality through metrics such as temperature and Co². The tracking app builds a Co²-level graph and makes users aware when important thresholds are reached.

The company has integrated 3D printing as a strategy early on in its rapid prototyping process, saving money, energy and eliminating risk.

Withings R&D mechanical engineer, Bastien Rechke said:

“In the development process, there are always phases during which we use 3D printing. It’s really helpful to have physical pieces in your own hands in order to make the right choices.

“It’s also a way for us to add the sense of touch to the visual perception. Designers often create a design just as we describe it to them, but after seeing it for real, we notice that we need to change something. In the long run, 3D printing processes have a profound impact on the quality of our products.”

Rapid prototyping also offers the means to evaluate if each piece fits its mechanical function before Withings launches the production of the tooling. Now that the technology has reached a precision of a few microns, prototypes are really close to what will come out of a mold in the conventional production process.

Rechke continued:

 “In the past, it might have been difficult to reach such a precision in the prototyping phase, but it’s now not only possible but also really affordable. It might take a little bit of time at the beginning, but in the end it is something that can save us lots of time and money.

“Creating a mold is something that takes weeks and is still expensive, 3D printing helps us to be 100 percent sure of quality control before we launch the production.”

Due to scheduling delays during the development of its latest product, and 3D Printed Part Vs Injection Molding.JPGhaving dabbled with 3D printing previously, Withings turned to Sculpteo to see if the technology could create the necessarily components to hold the new air quality sensors on the circuit board.

Sculpteo specialises in selective laser sintering and 3D prints from polymer power.

Mechanical engineer of the R&D team Jean-Raphael Ouin commented:

“We already knew that the precision of 3D printing would be sufficient to fit the mechanical requirement of the pieces. For us, it was a really affordable way to solve a problem and fix a delay in the production process. For the first time at Withings, we thought of integrating 3D printed parts directly into the finished product.”

Within an hour of the first call, Sculpteo received the 3D files of the three components and instantly launched production of the first 100 units of each to ensure the file fitted the requirements.

After some minor production issues were solved, in just 24 hours Withings had verified the three pieces fitted the circuit board and Sculpteo was ready to launch a production run of several thousand.

Ouin continued:

“In the end, there were only a few iterations during the process. We came to Sculpteo with a precise need. We sent them the 3D file of our design, and they took care of the rest. A day later, they came to us to see if larger holes wouldn’t affect the requirements for the part. Since it was not an issue for us, we fixed the design and it went directly into production.”

The first reluctance about 3D printing generally comes from a misunderstanding about the technology and its cost. Clients come to Sculpteo with the idea that on the long term they will need to buy a 3D printer or even teach someone to handle the machine.

Sculpteo's 3D printing service allows clients to do the exact opposite. Customers just need to create an account on the website, fill in their payment information, and upload their 3D file.

By integrating 3D printing into the last steps of the industrial process, Withings was able to cut the production delay by at least two weeks. Within four days, the company was able to start producing its new Smart Body Analyzer, and had thousands units of each piece available for assembly while the industrial mold was being finished.

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