Cleaning up with digital manufacturing

Uploaded 05 Jun @ 18:48pm

The Leifheit brand is synonymous with high-quality homeware products. Any mistake in product development can be expensive and, in the age of social networks, can have serious repercussions. This is where digital manufacturer, Proto Labs, offers peace of mind.

Leifheit is one of Germany’s best known brands, headquartered in Rhineland-Palatinate, the company’s products are sold in 80 countries. Listed on the German stock market, Leifheit employs a workforce of more than 1,000 across 15 sites, mainly in Europe, which is also the primary sales market.

Since Leifheit was established 50 years ago, the domestic home products have changed dramatically; Leifheit has kept pace with, and even shaped, these changes. Modern life asks a great deal of cleaning utensils in terms of effectiveness and aesthetics. Not only do they need to work well and look good, they have also come to reflect a certain lifestyle. Consumers are quick to use social media forums to share any bad experiences with products. The comments spread rapidly and are visible to everyone. Unfortunately, good experiences take rather longer to be reflected in reviews and ratings.

The instant access of social media
puts enormous pressure on the development of new products. On the one hand, a constant stream of innovations surprise and impress the consumer but, on the other hand, consumer expectations are very high.

In addition, product development cycles are also shorter than ever before. Product Developer, Thorsten May, explains: “We maintain our quality standards with very elaborate test phases where we use samples in production quality, even though we haven’t yet got any tooling for production of the plastic parts.”

Leifheit first worked with Proto Labs some seven years ago. Leifheit hosts a well-equipped prototyping section in-house, providing conventional prototyping methods plus 3D printers and silicon casting processes.

However, conventional prototyping has its limitations, as Thorsten May points out: “These parts we can manufacture are only of limited use to us because, as hand-made samples, they can only demonstrate the intended shape and form. They are not suitable for functional tests because their properties differ greatly from those of the production material. We use mainly PP, POM, PA with a percentage of fibreglass plus various elastomers and our own special synthetic mixtures in our corporate colour. Proto Labs stock this material so we receive parts precisely as we need them within just a few days. The ordering process is simple, we log onto Proto Labs’ quoting platform (ProtoQuote) where our designs are analysed for their manufacturability. Based on the DFM feedback, we then select the material, enter the desired quantity and activate the order – and that’s it. A conventional tool and die maker would need a week for the quote alone, never mind delivery of the finished parts, wasting considerable time.”

The development of the Clean Twist Mop is a good example of the process. The model had already been on the market for a few years, but the most striking change made was to how the mop was wrung out. The new Clean Twist model has a patented handle with spinning mechanism and a larger mop head. To wring the mop, it is pressed vertically into the basket, the mop spins in the basket, and centrifugal force then takes over the wringing process. The hinge between mop and handle, which was designed as a universal joint, is another interesting element.

Proto Labs helped with development of the critical handle joint. Thorsten May describes the procedure: “This was a complete revamp of the product. We had an idea in mind for the handle joint. We designed two connecting parts using CATIA software and promptly had them made up at Proto Labs. However, our test samples indicated the design wasn’t robust enough to withstand the desired amount of weight. This provided us with an important insight, which we wouldn’t have gained as quickly or precisely without the rapid prototyping from Proto Labs. So we made an improved version, changed the tube design once again and within a few days we had our production quality parts available for tests.”

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