For over 100 years, Wilson Sporting Goods has been known around the world as a leader in sports equipment, soft goods and other sports accessories. Wilson’s R&D team has the necessary software, hardware and materials to cover the entire product development process, from concept and design to prototyping and full-scale production. Recently, the Wilson team has become heavily involved in the area of additive manufacturing, working with many companies in the industry, constantly improving their products and introducing innovations in the field of faster and more efficient manufacturing. Wilson’s key partners are Nexa3D – a manufacturer of super-fast photopolymer 3D printers and Addifab – a company that supplies injection molded parts using 3D printed tools.

Glen Mason, Head of Advanced Innovation/Industrialization at DeMarini (a division of Wilson Sporting Goods), states that the company is still just taking its first steps in 3D printing – “we are just touching the surface of additive manufacturing. Not only do we want to speed up the tooling and design iteration cycles, but we also look at how to get production-ready molds without having to test R&D components. At work, we use a 3D printer from Nexa3D and the FIM (Freeform Injection Molding) platform from Addifab.”

Mason joined the DeMarini Sports/Wilson R&D team many years ago and has extensive experience in the plastic injection molding industry. “The Nexa3D x Addifab system has so many advantages that my team is able to eliminate several steps when designing new tools, freeing us to focus on other projects and significantly reducing the amount of waste and time needed to test our designs,” says Mason.

The Wilson R&D team was looking for a more efficient way to produce prototype injection molding tools for a line of youth baseball bat handles. To implement design changes to an existing stick handle, the product development team looked for an alternative prototyping process to reduce the time it takes to produce these parts on the shop floor. Moving away from traditional metalworking methods, the team first redesigned the component using 3D printing as the only way to produce the mold.

Before switching to Nexa3D and Addifab technology, the Wilson design team used traditional subtractive manufacturing methods to make tooling for plastic injection mold prototypes. Although metal tooling is typically much stiffer and sturdier than polymer tooling, there are several design limitations that must be considered before moving into the design concept phase. In addition, with its global manufacturing operations, Wilson was also looking for ways to shorten the product design lifecycle and speed up time to market.

“Over the past two years, we have been taking a close look at our supply chains as well as trying to understand how we can produce more environmentally friendly and sustainable products. It comes down to making products closer to where they are used and designing and manufacturing products that use less waste, use recyclable materials and have more lean design processes,” explains Mason.

The partnership with Nexa3D and Addifab brought several immediate benefits to Wilson engineers. Thanks to the large build area of Nexa3D 3D printers and the ultra-fast LSPc process, Wilson’s R&D group can now quickly produce multiple parts at once, allowing multiple design iterations in a single 3D print batch. In addition, what previously consisted of several components can now be printed as a single part, reducing assembly time and increasing its durability.

With Addifab, R&D designers have much more design flexibility and access to a wider range of materials compared to traditional metal plastic injection molding tools. “Our designers can now afford a tolerance for these tools, whereas with metal tools, even a few microns can change the original design. Additionally, with Addifab’s proprietary resin material, there are no concerns about adhesion or bonding of plastics during the injection molding process,” said Mason.

He explained that there were several goals in this venture, the two most important of which were “how can we reduce the time it takes to bring new designs to market” and “what new technologies can we use to shorten the product development cycle, reduce material consumption through less iteration prototypes and improve the overall component design for these new designs”?

Once an initial concept is developed, the R&D team can typically produce a prototype in a single business day – a process that would previously have taken months to create. There is a simple three-step process once Wilson engineers decide to create a prototype:

  • Print the mold – With Nexa3D’s fast LSPc printing process and large build volume, Wilson R&D engineers can typically 3D print multiple prototype tools on a single print. In a recent test, the production team was able to print a total of 6 different molds (12 pieces) in about 9 hours. Previously, the alternative was to either fabricate metal tools for several weeks/months – and then only for one design option, or simply not start the design journey at all.
  • Plastic injection molding of parts – Because the new process resembles molding a thermal insulator instead of a conductor, the hot polymer material flows much more easily into the mold. This reduces the risk of process errors and significantly lowers the pressure required to form the part, resulting in lower pressure in the cavity and less distortion of the printed mold.
  • Finishing – Using the Addifab curing system and soluble resin, dipping the part into a tank and allowing the fluid to dissolve from the substrate is the only finishing work needed to get the finished part. This alkaline solution removes the polymer cavity, leaving the finished piece intact, ready for testing.

“What used to take months in our machine shop now takes just days to reverse design iterations,” says Mason, “we also eliminated two extra steps in our product development process and allowed for the minimum interaction necessary to get to the first test.”

“Because we can iterate much faster, print tools faster than machine, and eliminate several process steps. This helps us to significantly reduce our time-to-market by enabling quick and efficient design decisions. We also no longer have to worry about traditional DfM constraints such as where to place the gantry, how material will flow through the part, warp/deviation of the part, and even tight tolerances compared to our previous tooling production.”

Although Wilson Sporting Goods has been a customer of Addifab for several years, the natural expansion of the relationship came when Addifab announced a partnership with Nexa3D to significantly enhance the capabilities of FIM technology. “We completed approximately 15 different projects in a nine-month period, where previously we were only able to complete a handful of projects at a time,” Mason explains. “Our long-term plans include integrating this technology and new design process into more Wilson product lines like tennis and others.

Wilson will continue to use Nexa3D and Addifab solutions to create new innovations and enhancements to existing product lines. The team is already using the same workflow to coordinate design work for adjacent product lines and will continue to do so. While it’s quite difficult to replace the durability and capability of metal fabrication tooling, Wilson’s product development team continues to push the boundaries of what’s possible using additive manufacturing as its primary tool.

The exclusive distributor of Nexa3D in Poland is 3D Phoenix. Ask what can change in your business: [email protected].

Source: 3DPhoenix press materials

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