It all started with a sales colleague who got inspired by a 3D printed pump. He came up with the idea to adapt it to metal powder conveying by applying a small conveyor body to fit the needs of the Additive Manufacturing industry, which usually requires only tiny amounts of powder to be conveyed.
The development of the piFLOW®am is a notable example of teamwork, ecosystem of partners and innovative culture at Piab. After the idea was born, the first concept was created by one of our application engineers in close cooperation with a customer and other OEMs. It was a customized solution that went through several iterations before our R&D team was involved to build the prototype for a more standardized product and to run lifetime and functional tests to ensure the product quality as well as developing user manuals and other relevant documentation. We constructed the prototype the Piab way, meaning that we broke it down into modular blocks which allows a high level of flexibility and adaptability to user needs, compatibility with our product range and spare parts, and it also makes the maintenance of the product easy.
From my perspective, I really think this is a wonderful way of developing new products based on existing needs and with an industry partner willing to get involved early on to test and validate our initial ideas rather than a finalized product. We would love to see more of our users becoming partners. This way they get a unique solution fully customized to their needs while we can apply the input to develop standard modules for an application.
The interesting part about this product is that the pump we are using with it is 3D printed itself, so we are producing a product for the additive manufacturing industry and using it at the same time.
With our 70th anniversary this year, we are drawing on extensive experience combined with the latest technologies that have made this product possible. Additionally, we have taken advantage of the strength of a large organization by using newly launched products across divisions. The ejector employed was just recently developed for the latest pump in our Vacuum Automation Division for robotics applications.
We, in the R&D team of the Piab Vacuum Conveying Division, are extremely excited about Additive Manufacturing because it gives us the possibility to get rid of design constraints inherent in the traditional production processes. Previously the design was not only driven by product considerations but also by questions regarding how the tools could be made. Additive Manufacturing opens completely new possibilities. And it does not only influence the way products are designed but will also have a significant effect from a production perspective, because - particularly in the case of small parts - 3D printing doesn’t require tooling thus offers a higher level of flexibility. Another great area for its deployment is spare parts. For example, if a product is discontinued, you no longer need to keep parts or tools in stock, you just need to keep the drawing and then manufacture the respective part on demand.
Additive Manufacturing is not a fully automated industry yet and material handling plays a leading role in getting this industry to fly. For me as the R&D manager, this makes it particularly fascinating to be involved early on, when this technology is just at the brink of taking on mass production. I am also incredibly happy and proud to be a part of this ecosystem of engineers, OEMs and sales managers, who all contributed with their expertise to the creation of a new product.