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Automating automation systems with Schubert PartBox

How the German industrial automation expert is using 3D printing for spare parts production on its own systems

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German firm Schubert has been making automation systems since the 60s. Today the core of its business is represented by the TLM systems, which are state-of-the-art packaging machines. In other words, they represent the ultimate and final step in mass production automation. Foods, drinks, consumer products: everything that can be packaged goes through these machines at very high rates. And sometimes parts need to be modified or replaced. That’s what Schubert PartBox does.

Because these are often very specific and complex types of parts, 3D printing has proven to be an efficient solution for internal use at Schubert. In fact, the company has 3D printed over 100,000 single parts since 2014, in 6,000 different part types. Today the company is printing nearly 50,000 parts per year, using SLS, FDM and SLM technologies, either internally or through partner service providers.

“We have been using 3D printing so much for our own spare and replacement parts that we decided we wanted to make this technology readily available to our customers as well,” says Conrad Zanzinger Technischer Leiter / CTO at Schubert Additive Solutions GmbH. He runs the AM operations at the company. “That’s why we created PartBox.”

Schubert PartBox

PartBox is a Digital Warehouse for spare parts. It holds the designs of several parts that may need replacement and enables Schubert’s customers to 3D print them just by pressing a button, either from their computer or even a mobile phone. It does what several other third-party software providers, such as 3DPrinterOS and Authentise, for example, are helping companies implement. However, it is a closed system developed by Schubert for its customers.

Although Schubert has used other AM technologies for its internal needs, PartBox leverages Ultimaker 5 3D printers exclusively. These machines have come a long way since the early desktop versions and can now support up to five different materials, with a high degree of automation in material supply. All technical specifications have been integrated into the Schubert PartBox software. “Many of our clients were not familiar with 3D printing before we presented this solution to them. They usually don’t have time to play around with slicers and filaments. So we needed to make this system as readily accessible as possible. We have taken care of everything for them. All they need to do is select the part they need, select an available printer from the queue and press print,” says Zanzinger.

Schubert PartBox For Schubert, this has proven to be an extremely efficient solution. In the past, having to ship a part may have required several hours and even days of downtime. With 3D printing, it’s possible to simply send out a digital model and produce it on location. However, Schubert needs to retain control of the model and the printing process. “With PartBox we wanted to ensure the easiest operation, with the simplest hardware and the lowest initial investment,” Zanzinger says. “The system today requires no programming and it is able to guarantee reproducible quality along with the highest level of data security.” With PartBox, the end-users are not able to modify the model. They stream it to their printers and Schubert can get paid for each part that its customers need. The complete hardware and software package includes the Ultimaker 5 3D printer, a GS Gate IoT server platform for secure streaming and the part streaming software platforms.

The key elements in a packaging machine are the tools used to grip thousands of different types of parts. Although this is not as complex as having to recognize every single different part (as in AM-Flow’s case), it still requires thousands of different tools tailored to rapidly and efficiently handle the specific requirements of a particular product. In one application case, Schubert needed to replace a gripper with a small plastic cream container. The traditional gripper was made of 192 turned parts, 18 complex milled parts, 1,024 screws and required one full day to assemble. With 3D printing, the same part is made of 0 turned parts, 0 complex milled parts. It only has 8 screws and takes 10 minutes to assemble. This is one example, but PartBox also includes a number of machine spare parts, jigs and tools as well.

The PartBox Digital Warehouse is an incredible improvement compared to current messy physical warehouses. A single 3D printer—or 3D printer farm—can replace dozens of shelves and boxes. Integrating 3D printers into a fully automated production workflow may still take several years, but using 3D printers to keep current automated mass production systems running is already a reality.

This article originally appeared in 3dpbm’s AM Focus Automation eBook, available here.

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Davide Sher

Since 2002, Davide has built up extensive experience as a technology journalist, market analyst and consultant for the additive manufacturing industry. Born in Milan, Italy, he spent 12 years in the United States, where he completed his studies at SUNY USB. As a journalist covering the tech and videogame industry for over 10 years, he began covering the AM industry in 2013, first as an international journalist and subsequently as a market analyst, focusing on the additive manufacturing industry and relative vertical markets. In 2016 he co-founded London-based 3dpbm. Today the company publishes the leading news and insights websites 3D Printing Media Network and Replicatore, as well as 3D Printing Business Directory, the largest global directory of companies in the additive manufacturing industry.

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