French multinational corporation, Schneider Electric SE, is the global specialist in electricity distribution, automation management and the production of installation components for energy management. The company’s 160,000+ employees serve customers in over 100 countries, helping them to manage their energy and processes in ways that are safe, reliable, efficient and sustainable.
Streamlining manufacturing processes to achieve efficiency goals
With efficiency enhancement central to its value proposition and indeed the ethos of the company itself, Schneider Electric was keen to explore ways of streamlining certain manufacturing processes to achieve both short and longer-term efficiency goals. To help meet these objectives, the company has incorporated Stratasys 3D printing technology across its manufacturing operations in Grenoble, France, having originally used it for several years for prototyping new solutions.
Indeed, such is the widespread deployment of the technology that Schneider Electric now uses a combination of Stratasys Polyjet and FDM-based 3D printing solutions for product development, prototypes and industrialisation. This comprises multiple applications, including injection moulding and assembly-line tooling, the design and production of which is managed via the company’s internal model shop, Openlab. This extensive deployment of 3D printing technology also complements the company’s vision of creating the Factory of the Future.
The combination of dramatic financial savings and a greatly enhanced workflow achievable from incorporating Stratasys 3D printing into the process has contributed to the plant’s overall manufacturing efficiencies and reduced the time-to-market in key areas.
“This year, Schneider will launch around 400 new solutions, which is more than one a day,” says Sylvain Gire, Vice President of GSC Transformation-Industrialisation at Schneider Electric. “Therefore, it is critical that we adopt technologies that help us reduce time-to-market.”
Efficient design and engineering of assembly-line tooling
One area in particular that underscores the efficiency benefits delivered by the company’s Stratasys 3D printing technology is the production of injection mould inserts used to print functional parts. This has seen the company slash the cost of producing injection mould inserts used for prototyping designs to just €100, compared to €1000 when manufacturing the same item in aluminium.
“We’re witnessing an astronomical cost-saving from 3D printing injection moulds, but we’ve also drastically cut the time taken to produce them, so we’re looking at a win-win every time,” explains Sylvain. “Manufacturing the prototype moulds in aluminium necessitates – in some cases – a lead time of as much as two months, but with Stratasys’ 3D printing solutions, the whole process is completed within a week,” he adds. “That’s a roughly 90% saving again, which would be unfathomable with any other technology.”
These benefits also extend to Schneider Electric’s mechanical design and engineering department, which is tasked with the production of assembly, control and adjustment tools for its diverse product range. Here, the company utilises a mix of both FDM-based materials (including thermoplastic polycarbonates) and PolyJet materials (such as the highly accurate Digital ABS) to produce prototype jigs and fixtures to validate the ergonomics and functionality of final assembly tools. Such tools span a range of items, including welding tool connectors, electromagnetic displacement controls and printed circuit board assembly connection tools.
The future will see Schneider 3D print final tools
Using 3D printing to design and engineer assembly-line tools for validation enables the company to save time in the production of the final tools. Harnessing Stratasys’ Connex multi-material 3D printing technology, department manager Yann Sittarame and his team can produce new manufacturing tool prototypes in just one week. In the past, it would have taken at least three weeks to produce the same tools using conventional CNC machining, which amounts to a massive time-saving of around 70%.
“This technology has changed the way we work and changes the way we think about doing things in the future,” explains Yann. “Looking ahead, we plan to 3D-print the final tools, which is perfectly achievable given the accuracy and durability of our 3D printing process."
For now, the company will, according to Sylvain Gire, continue to leverage Stratasys solutions for the ongoing development of its tooling process, predominantly for the production of small quantities of new products. Beyond that, and in order to realise its ultimate goal of creating the Factory of the Future, Schneider Electric plans to explore the opportunity of using Stratasys’ 3D printing solutions for final production, such as for spare parts or for low-volume requirements.