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3D printing gets BMW's thumbs up

The BMW group has, as part of a pilot project, used 3D printing to make custom orthotic devices designed to take the stress from a worker’s thumbs when performing repetitive tasks in manufacturing cars. Using a CO2 laser and preheated construction chamber, unique and customised flexible thumb cots have been manufactured using the additive process.

The project has been carried out in cooperation with the Department of Ergonomics at the Technical University of Munich. It aims to protect workers against excess strains on the thumb joints while fitting rubber plugs in the car chasis which must be pressed in by hand. These plugs cover openings such as drain holes in the body before it is painted.

The worker's thumb is scanned with a 3D scanner to take specific measurements. This data is then applied to a template and the device created using a selective laser sintering process. The powders are preheated to allow each fine layer to merge with the preceding one.

The cots are made of a polyurethane thermoplastic, which are produced in such a way that allows free movement normally, but when extended becomes a reinforced splint and spreads the force across the entire thumb.

A press release from the group stated: 'The BMW Group considers people the key to a lean production that focuses on the customer benefit. This is why the company interprets "Industry 4.0" as a way to make reasonable use of technologies in order to provide the best-possible support to the workers in production and in support areas.'

The Group is one of many major engineering companies that either are already using, or looking into additive manufacturing and 3D printing. On 14 July 2014 it was reported that shipping giants, Maersk, had announced that it was considering the possibility of installing AM machines on its ships. It was said that the technology would be used to provide substitute parts onboard ships that would otherwise be difficult to come by.

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