Additive Manufacturing Strategies

BMW Uses 3D Printing to Give Employees a Thumbs Up

ST Medical Devices

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BMW has long recognized that the people in its workforce are key to efficient production. As such, they have undertaken a number of efforts to create the best possible supports for their employees. The Munich BMW Vehicle Assembly plant workers are getting bespoke thumb splints, created with additive manufacturing techniques, in order to reduce the stress placed on their joints while carrying out assembly processes. These personal orthotic devices are created individually by scanning each recipient’s hand in a mobile hand scanner.

bmw-workers-offered-3d-printed-finger-cots-to-prevent-injuries_2Over time, normal assembly line tasks can cause strain on the thumb joints. This is especially true when the motion performed requires pressure and strength to complete. One such exampled would be the act of pressing rubber stoppers into car body parts, to cover the holes created to drain paint away during coating.  This orthotic is designed to be flexible when bending forward and does not inhibit the thumb’s normal bending motion. However, once the thumb has been extended (into a thumbs up type position) plastic reinforcers on the back of the device lock together to prevent the thumb joint from bending backwards. In this way, the thumb cot works to distribute applied force down the entire length of the thumb to the carpus. This relieves the joint from carrying the entire burden of the activity and should help to prevent stress related and repetitive motion injuries.

The devices are created using thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU), a hybrid material mixture of hard plastic and soft silicone, with a proven record of successful application in orthotics. BMW produces these devices in-house, using selective laser sintering to build them up layer by layer. The long-term goal of BMW is to discover ways to make appropriate assembly aids for their workers, as a standard aspect of their plants’ production procedures. Currently, they are gathering feedback from the group of workers using the splint and report that they have received very positive feedback.

BMW-3D-printerThis is also not BMW’s first foray into additive production processes. They have been harnessing the benefits of processes such as stereo-lithography, polyjet printing, fused deposition molding, and stream smelting since 1989 for both rapid and concept prototyping. Approximately 100,000 pieces per year are created using these methods at The Rapid Technologies Center, which is part of their larger Research and Innovation Center in Munich.

The creation of these thumb cots is part of a dissertation being supervised in the Department of Ergonomics at the Technical University of Munich, and is being evaluated as part of BMW’s Industry 4.0 plan.

Discuss the use of 3D printing to make these very unique thumb cots in the BMW 3D Printed Thumb Cot forum thread on 3DPB.com

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