Industrial 3D printing is a broad concept and takes on many forms. Sometimes it’s a small part of the production process, but more often you hear stories where 3D printing has become the most important part in the manufacturer’s process.
This is the story of Tech Sleeves, a Dutch company that makes parts for the flexographic printing industry and which works with an industrial 3D printer called the XceL.
Flexographic Printing Industry
I have to admit that I had never heard about the flexographic printing industry when I started working on this article. Even though this industry takes care of printing labels on so many household commodities. Flexography differs from a normal 2D printing process by utilizing a flexible relief plate. It can be used for printing on almost any type of substrate, including plastic, metallic films, cellophane, and paper. It is widely used for printing on various types of food packaging.
The process line for flexo printing involves five components: ink pan, fountain roll, anilox roll, plate cylinder and impression cylinder (plate sleeve). Each one is needed to complete the flexography process, see image below.
Before the actual printing process can take place, a printing plate has to be created. A plate carries the information, for instance a brand name and a logo. The printing plates are flexible and are wrapped/mounted around a sleeve. The sleeve itself is mounted on a mandrel. The video below shows how this works.
As a general rule, the bigger the object that has to be flexo printed, the larger the diameter of the sleeve needs to be. For instance when a flexo printing office switches from printing chips packaging to cement bags, which are bigger they need to mount a sleeve adapter with a bigger diameter. That’s where Tech Sleeves comes in. Tech Sleeves is able to make customize sleeve adapters by using 3D printing technology.
About Tech Sleeves
In 2015 Tech Sleeves supplied their first 3D printed light weight sleeve adapters. Within a year they’ve managed to reduce the weight by 50%.
To give you an idea on significant this is: Being able to achieve this weight reduction within only 1 year by using 3D printing equals a similar reduction of weight that has only normally been accomplished in the last 20 years in this industry.
3D printing is a perfect fit for Tech Sleeves because their products are ordered customer-specific, each sleeve or bridge is therefore custom-made.
Benefits they have achieved by applying 3D printing in their production process:
1. 70% reduction in man-hours for production of large diameter sleeves and bridges
– From an average of 12 man-hours to 3.5 hrs.
2. Close to 50% weight reduction of the final product.
– From an average of 30kg for large repeat bridges to 15kg, improving ergonomics and handling for their customers / operators.
3. Over 40% waste material reduction in their production process.
4. Increase of their overall Operational Equipment Efficiency (OEE) by 15%.
5. Reducing the use of chemicals.
Leapfrog XceL Industrial 3D Printer
The major obstacle Tech Sleeves faced was that the objects they wanted to print were over 2.2 meters (86″) in length with a diameter up to 430mm (17”). Leapfrog provided them a solution by designing and building the XceL industrial 3D Printer.
The XceL has a print volume of 945 by 1030 by 2900 mm (37.2″ x 50.6″ x 114.2″) and can reach a print speed of 180 mm/sec (7 inch/sec). It has a granite composite heated bed construction and has a fully automatic printbed z-leveling system. More specs here.