3D printing has started a new trend in the R&D industry. Projects that were once outsourced are now being taken on internally. For example, the Anita Dr. Helbig GmbH in Brannenburg, is a manufacturer of bodices, swimwear and breast prosthetics. Using the x400 3D printer by German RepRap they were able to produce molds for breast prosthetics while reducing their costs. According to a survey of 624 companies done by Tech Pro Analysts, this places the Anita Dr. Helbig GmbH in the early adopters group of businesses that actively use 3D printers. With the Anita Dr. Helbig project, product development not only covers the actual textiles but the tools needed to shape the products.
The junior director of the company had silicone prostheses in mind, the so-called epitheses, “The molds have been changing all the time and we need tools for 10 different types in 100 different sizes”, says Georg Weber-Unger junior. The x400 3D printer has revolutionized the tool making process for these prostheses. Traditionally a wooden template was used to create a fiber-glass prototype. This was then mirrored in a manual process which takes 14 days to create an aluminum mold that would allow silicone to be poured into. “The two sides were never absolutely identical”, the managing director recalls. Today the mold is created using CAD software which can instantly mirror and then print the product. To do that the original aluminum mold is being 3D scanned, the images stitched together and then touched up within the software. The printer software called “Slicer” converts the CAD files into the G-code format readable by the 3D printer. Within a few hours the printer creates a positive copy of the tool. At the Anita Dr. Helbig GmbH, they only print with PLA (polylactic acid) filament. PLA is a biodegradable thermoplastic polyester with a high tensile strength. The PLA model is casted with sand and a foundry turns the resulting casting mold into the new aluminum tool. Using this method no longer requires milling, as Weber-Unger points out, “The new process saves us about 50% of the development costs.”