Founded in 1864, Germany-based OECHSLER has well over a century of experience in the production of plastic parts and products. This long-running practice has provided a strong foundation for the company’s current offering, which consists of one of the most robust polymer 3D printing production chains in existence.
Eager to find out more about how OECHSLER got to this point—and how its journey with 3D printing has evolved—we spoke to Markus Bischoff, OECHSLER AG’s Vice President of Sales, Sporting Goods and Additive Manufacturing. We also had the opportunity to hear from Joe Batdorf, Director of DLS Production at Carbon, the company that has been pivotal to OECHSLER’s AM pursuits.
A brief introduction
OECHSLER was founded by Mattias Oechsler in Ansbach, Middle Franconia, and was initially focused on the production of buttons. Over the years, it grew from these more humble roots to become one of the world’s leading plastic technology companies, providing parts and end-to-end services to customers across many sectors, including automotive, sporting & consumer, medical and industrial. The company today operates six production facilities (in Germany, China, Romania, Mexico and Vietnam) and employs roughly 3,000 people globally.
Though the bulk of OECHSLER’s production over the decades has relied on injection molding processes, additive manufacturing has become something of a game-changer in recent years. “As a plastics processing company, we have been involved with the topic of 3D printing since an early stage,” Bischoff explains. “It started more than 15 years ago, but for a long time it was limited to rapid tooling and rapid prototyping.”
In 2016, however, OECHSLER partnered with a company that would change its perspective on 3D printing and its ambitions surrounding the technology. “Carbon was introduced to OECHSLER by a global sporting goods OEM and we made the decision to collaborate with the scale-up of a high-volume manufacturing project,” Batdorf reveals. “Over time, Carbon transferred DLS manufacturing technology to OECHSLER, and we’ve worked together to industrialize the manufacturing process.”
An AM power couple
The Carbon Digital Light Synthesis™ (Carbon DLS™) process proved to be something of a turning point for OECHSLER, marking the first time the company truly saw serial production potential for polymer AM. Bischoff elaborates: “On a technological level, OECHSLER is a series/mass producer, so we always analyze the scalability of technologies. Once we understood the mass production potential of Carbon’s DLS technology in 2016/17, we started to invest time, effort and resources. Fortunately, our efforts at that time were accompanied by a promising customer project.”
Carbon’s DLS technology fits the bill for production for a number of reasons. As Batdorf explains: “The DLS process allows engineers and designers to iterate faster, deliver projects with less risk and radically reimagine their products by introducing consolidated parts, impossible geometries and programmable lattices. The technology produces consistent and predictable isotropic mechanical properties, creating parts that are solid on the inside like injection molded parts. In addition, Carbon technology produces fully dense parts.”
“All these factors have been integral preconditions for mass production,” adds Bischoff. “Additionally, the process is super competitive in terms of printing speed and product quality.”
The combination of Carbon’s technology and OECHSLER’s manufacturing experience proved to be powerful, and the companies successfully built a robust and scalable solution for series production. “Achieving this was only possible by building mutual trust and sharing know-how,” Bischoff continues. “Carbon and OECHSLER employees worked together in inter-company teams to pursue one key goal: the realization of one of the largest series productions in polymer-based additive manufacturing.”
Today, OECHSLER runs over 150 3D printers globally and has continuously produced over 1 million 3D printed components a year since 2019. “OECHSLER fundamentally understands additive manufacturing as a series production process,” Bischoff says. “This means that we are currently in a position to offer our customers all services along the entire value chain, from product idea, product, process and material development to global series production.”
The challenges of series production
Of course, it was no walk in the park to attain this level of series production. Both Carbon and OECHSLER worked tirelessly to validate and optimize the production process so that millions of parts were viable. “The main challenge was to scale and stabilize the production process,” Bischoff notes. “While before the process was designed for the production of several hundred parts, it had to be rethought to achieve the production of millions.
“The actual printing process accounts for around 50% of the production chain. This meant we had to redesign the pre-and especially post processes. As OECHSLER has deep knowledge in setting up and scaling productions and Carbon has a deep knowledge of their technology and process, we benefited a lot from the collaboration and synergies. Ultimately, the main challenge was to transition from a ‘proof-of-concept’ to serial production. To scale from 100 to 100,000 is the challenge; scaling from 100,000 to 1 million is business as usual for OECHSLER nowadays.”
The bulk of this groundwork was undertaken at OECHSLER’s German facilities, where teams specialize in process development. Once the workflow was established and stable there, it was implemented in the Chinese factory in Taicang on an even larger scale. Today, OECHSLER runs three AM sites in Germany and China. “Our mass production facilities have been completely redesigned and adapted to the needs of additive manufacturing,” Bischoff adds. “Honestly, you might think you’re in outer space when you walk through the production rooms, as we use state-of-the-art technologies.”
From your head to your toes
In terms of its output, OECHSLER has a diverse portfolio and has become a key production partner to Carbon in Europe and China. As mentioned, the company supplies 3D printed parts to a global sporting goods OEM, but it also serves customers in the automotive, medical, industrial and sporting sectors. “In each of these markets, we have identified and are realizing serial projects,” Bischoff tells us. “One of the most recent product lines is the American football helmets we produced for Riddell.” (Most of our readers will be familiar with this project, which was unveiled by Carbon in late 2019 alongside the launch of its L1 3D printer.)
Having such a broad manufacturing capacity—spanning not only 3D printing but also injection molding—means that OECHSLER has the opportunity to find products that would be best suited for additive manufacturing. In other words, it knows where the technology has the biggest benefits and potential.
“Products with a high number of variants, but also those with a specific design only achievable with 3D printing, benefit most from the technology,” Bischoff notes. “We also see that a combination of injection molding with AM provides huge potential. You can use IM for standard parts and AM for complex, individualized parts.”
Batdorf adds: “Both Carbon and OECHSLER’s business development teams are engaged with many different OEMs at the moment, developing applications to scale up into production. Carbon and OECHSLER plan to capitalize on our experience gained over the last few years and commence the production of more exciting new products for our customers. We’ve demonstrated that we can quickly scale up manufacturing capacity when needed and we look forward to the continued expansion of DLS manufacturing capacity and capabilities.”
A big part of why the partners are well equipped to handle such a broad variety of applications is Carbon’s material portfolio. With material options that include rigid polyurethane, flexible polyurethane, elastomeric polyurethane, medical-grade polyurethane, epoxy, cyanate ester and silicone, Carbon and OECHSLER can meet the needs of many customers—both for prototyping and end-use applications. Since 2019, OECHSLER has reportedly consumed more than 500,000 liters of Carbon resins per year.
For your serial production needs
Ultimately, the collaboration between OECHSLER and Carbon has not only been a mutually beneficial one: customers from across many industries can take advantage of the production framework the companies have built. And thanks to the easily scalable nature of the Carbon production line and OECHSLER’s steady infrastructure, they are always on the lookout for new partners.
“We understand ourselves as a one-stop-shop and are happy to support customers from the very first idea,” Bischoff says. “The customer can expect the highest AM expertise in the value chain of additive manufacturing. Generally, we are searching for products that really benefit from the technology: we’re not just printing because it’s fancy.”
From Carbon’s perspective, Batdorf emphasizes how significant the partnership with OECHSLER has been for the evolution of its technology. “This collaboration has proven out Carbon’s vision of the factory of the future. There were a lot of lessons learned along the way which have enabled us to develop repeatable processes for future expansion. We have demonstrated that it is possible to run multiple product lines with different materials, simultaneously at scale in the same factory. We have developed processes to speed up technology and application transfer to the customer, which OECHSLER has used to bring products to market in previously unthinkable timeframes.”
“There is no limit,” Bischoff concludes. “Increasing the capacity further can be realized quite easily. In the end, we use AM only for products where it makes sense to exploit the advantages of the technology, like design freedom, customization, and fast adoption.”
This interview was originally published in 3dpbm’s Consumer AM 2021 eBook.