Responsibility is of key importance and has a long tradition at ZEISS. It involves effective environmental protection and the responsible use of resources. The company has thus devised a set of ambitious reductions targets and is working tirelessly across all segments to reduce its consumption and emissions. From product development, manufacturing and sales through to the product's use by the customer, a key consideration is the efficient use of materials and energy. Since every reduction in energy consumption also decreases CO2 emissions, ZEISS is doing something good for the climate, too. At the same time, costs are optimized and processes enhanced – as illustrated by a project from the ZEISS Consumer Products strategic business unit. There, assembly and special tools used to be produced through machining, but this has been replaced with 3D printing.
We spoke to Dr. Torsten Scheidt, Head of Process Engineering at the strategic business unit ZEISS Consumer Products. He initiated and accompanied the new production process and worked with Florian Schimurda, the production engineer who had been involved with 3D printing from the outset and was able to contribute his knowledge of tooling design.
Scheidt: New methods were being deployed at the strategic business unit ZEISS Consumer Products to bring our manufacturing processes into line with Smart Production. Meanwhile, we began using 3D printing in 2017. We saw great potential in additive manufacturing, and so we spent four months conducting intensive research, testing and networking as part of a strategic project. We did this by working with both external providers and with others at ZEISS, in what we call a "Community of Practice" devoted to additive manufacturing. What we found is that, depending on the process, we could use the exact same printer to achieve vastly different results. And after weighing up all the criteria, we quickly realized that we need to have all the relevant expertise in-house, and to invest in our very own 3D printers.
Scheidt: We use the printers primarily to make production tools. By that I mean assembly and special tools that we design ourselves, with our ZEISS products in mind. We are also printing for other areas, like the Semiconductor Manufacturing Technology segment and the Customer Center service stations. To do this, we're relying on printers that use different processes. One involves heating plastic in points, much like you would with a glue gun. The material then hardens as it cools. Another, more precise, process involves a liquid resin contained in a cartridge. This is done in much the same way as with inkjet printing, and hardened with UV light, one layer at a time.
Schimurda: After purchasing the first printer in early 2018, we have been successively switching our processes. Four printers are now in use at the Oberkochen and Wetzlar sites, each of them with different specifications. In several subdivisions like cinematography lens assembly, 90 percent of all assembly tools are now produced using the 3D printing process. The main challenges of the switch were of a technical nature: That is, to find a suitable printer capable of producing tools precise enough and reliable enough to be used in manufacturing. Another aspect was to create acceptance among the users. After all, printed tools don't look the same as the ones we've been using until now. But they certainly have been very much accepted.
Scheidt: The new printed tools are made of artificial resin and have largely replaced the machined tools made of aluminum. It's important to note that aluminum production consumes a lot of energy and the material's many alloys mean it cannot simply be recycled as is. At the same time, a 3D printer consumes much less energy than a cutting machine. So in terms of energy balance, the process impresses on account of both the material used and its processing. This translated into savings of some 12,000 kWh in electrical power and 6.6 tons of CO2 in the first year alone.
Schimurda: Alongside the environmental aspect, 3D printing also offers completely different options in terms of design. That's why it's also used in prototype construction. There are certain recesses or voids that simply cannot be achieved with machining – but they're no problem for a 3D printer. So we're also modifying our construction methods, while reducing production times. Machining used to require a lead time of four to six weeks, but now it takes us just two days to print a tool. And last but not least, the new process means we're saving hundreds of thousands of euros every year.