We print with it

It is back to Blom­berg, the main loca­ti­on of Phoe­nix Con­tact. A sub­si­dia­ry of the com­pa­ny also resi­des here. A par­ti­cu­lar­ly attrac­tive one at that. It is cal­led Pro­tiq and is mana­ged by Dr. Gärt­ner.

Dr. Ralf Gärt­ner with Frank Knaf­la

The custo­mer sends the twin, and we use it to print the real image.” A com­plex-soun­d­ing con­cept has now beco­me the ordi­na­ry – 3D prin­ting has beco­me an indis­pensable part of the indus­tri­al envi­ron­ment. At Phoe­nix Con­tact, it has a name: PROTIQ. The sub­si­dia­ry is mana­ged by Dr. Ralf Gärt­ner. And, as we have come to expect, he down­plays the idea. “The digi­tal twin is way too exa­g­ge­ra­ted here. We work with 3D data­sets that are sim­ply enri­ched with small amounts of infor­ma­ti­on.”

In order to print some­thing, the data, or more pre­cise­ly the digi­tal twin, needs to be avail­ab­le direc­t­ly. The custo­mer usual­ly sup­plies it direc­t­ly as a CAD data­set. Pro­tiq turns the con­ven­tio­nal enrich­ment of an exis­ting real pro­duct with addi­tio­nal data, i.e. the com­ple­ti­on with addi­tio­nal pro­duct infor­ma­ti­on up to bil­ling and ship­ping infor­ma­ti­on, on its head.

We start with the digi­tal data, and only then do we pro­du­ce the real pro­duct with addi­ti­ve manu­fac­tu­ring. This then runs through all of our sys­tems, right through to mer­chan­di­se manage­ment, dispatch, and to the custo­mer,” exp­lains Dr. Gärt­ner. And what if the­re is no CAD data? “Then we scan, using com­pu­ter tomo­gra­phy for examp­le. The princip­le is simi­lar to typi­cal 2D prin­ting, whe­re you have to type befo­re you can print.”

It doesn’t work with just digi­tal

Once a desi­gner has finis­hed desi­gning a CAD model, a prin­ter can make it real over­night. After just a few hours, the real pro­duct is avail­ab­le for tes­ting. “This acce­le­ra­tes pro­duct deve­lop­ment enor­mously,” exp­lains Dr. Gärt­ner. Topo­lo­gy opti­mi­za­ti­on, on the other hand, is initi­al­ly done ent­i­re­ly digi­tal­ly. This method is used to give a 3D model an opti­mi­zed shape, one that achie­ves the balan­cing act bet­ween weight reduc­tion and stiff­ness opti­mi­za­ti­on and sta­bi­li­ty in often asto­nis­hing ways. “But  this is just work on the CAD model, which does not have the goal of crea­ting a digi­tal twin,” Dr. Gärt­ner qua­li­fies. “We are just impro­ving the data­set so that we can print it out.”

Just how natu­ral­ly we jump back and forth bet­ween the digi­tal and real worlds is illus­tra­ted by the fol­lo­wing pro­cess: Hund­reds of custo­mer orders can be pro­ces­sed simul­ta­ne­ous­ly in one prin­ting pro­cess. All of the­se parts then have to be iden­ti­fied and manu­al­ly assi­gned to the respec­tive custo­mer order. “This is a com­ple­te was­te of the effort for a human being,” says Dr. Gärt­ner. This assign­ment is the cur­se of the batch pro­cess, bund­ling various print jobs for opti­mum arran­ge­ment in the print room. The pro­cess is necessa­ry to make the most of the capa­ci­ty of the 3D prin­ter.

Pro­duc­tion using twin and AI

Only very recent­ly have we mana­ged to auto­ma­te iden­ti­fy­ing the­se 3D-prin­ted parts and assi­gning them to custo­mer orders. This is done by using a came­ra sys­tem to record the lar­ge num­ber of parts and then using lear­ning arti­fi­ci­al intel­li­gence to iden­ti­fy the parts that belong to a custo­mer order. Here, a com­pa­ri­son is made bet­ween real objec­ts and the digi­tal image that accom­pa­nies the manu­fac­tu­ring pro­cess.”

What see­med to be sci­ence fic­tion just a short time ago is now rea­li­ty. “Thanks to our prin­ting capa­ci­ties in the USA and India, we are in a posi­ti­on to send the digi­tal twin ahead, so to speak, and have its real image prin­ted on loca­ti­on. This saves a lot of time and logistics costs.”

We feed it
We train it
We con­trol with it
We print with it
We’­ve got it!

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