Unique 3D-printing innovation helping spring ring manufacturer to meet customer demand
The sights, the sounds, the smells. A walk around the factory floor at Cirteq is a real assault on the senses.
A relentless hum and hammer of machinery almost everywhere you turn, raw materials undergoing a variety of treatments and vastly experienced workers buzzing around with warm smiles and welcoming nods. It feels like manufacturing as it should be.
At first glance this 80-year-old factory in Keighley, West Yorkshire, might seem old-school, but its appearance belies an innovative approach to embracing modern technology.
Part of the Titgemeyer Group, Cirteq is a leading international circlip and retaining ring specialist which exports all around the world to more than 500 customers, 80 per cent of which are in the automotive industry.
Its spring rings are used to stop something coming out of a bore or to keep something on a shaft, and it makes some 700 million (around 4,000 tonnes) of them annually by stamping and heating spring steel.
To ensure that its 3,800 product variants meet exacting demands for assembly, Cirteq works directly with some highly impressive original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) across the aerospace, automotive, rail and sustainable energy sectors. It counts Jaguar Land Rover, Volvo, JCB, Honda, Volkswagen, Renault, Nissan, BMW, GKN, Bosch, Siemens and Mitsubishi among them.
It is a company whose services are in high demand, where there is a constant need to look at better and smarter ways of working so that it can continue to consistently deliver high-quality parts in the volumes required.
That’s why it turned to 3D printing and a production line solution that is as unique as it is ingenious.
Cirteq Customer Quality Liaison Manager Theo Speller said: “We were trying to link processes and equipment in a production cell via ancillary equipment that really moved products from A to B, and it needed to get them there in a minimal time and also add some value.
“So what we’ve actually printed is rails that not only deliver the parts to the next process, but in some stages can actually oil the parts as they’re moving. This is a system for transferring snap rings, say from a sorting bowl to an oiling station, or from an oiling station to a packing station.
“We’ve taken away a stage that required a lot of manual labour to spray the parts and as we’re moving them from A to B we’re incorporating that oiling stage into the process by printing in soft, washable plastics.
“The labour that we’ve saved means that one person can now do the job that it traditionally took four people to do, and we’ve reduced the footfall from walking across the factory to getting the finished component in a fraction of the time and a fraction of the cost.”
The first system in the world to simultaneously 3D-print multiple colours and materials, the Connex3 allows users to create models with the look, feel and properties of real production parts, as well as quickly and easily print off custom jigs, assembly fixtures and tooling with ultra-fine accuracy and without any major post-processing requirements.
Multiple materials can be loaded at one time, enabling the printing of parts that require a range of mechanical, optical or thermal properties like non-slip grips, transparent windows or flexible hinges.
Mr Speller said: “We originally approached SYS Systems as we needed a bespoke solution where we could print ancillary equipment.
“We asked them whether this machine would do all this and they came back to us with an answer that yes, it could, if you could print in a variety of plastics. That’s what attracted us towards using the system – the fact that we could print in plastics that are both soft and hard and can be washed away to give the intricacies that we need.
“Being able to print to an exact design means that when that plastic print is finished it fits into the exact space it was designed for.
“You can basically press the start button and then just walk away, and when you come back that finished component has been built in a fraction of the time it once took to build and without any direct labour, leaving the person that programmed it free to work on other development projects.”
According to Mr Speller, the real beauty of 3D printing with superior Stratasys materials lies in their reliability.
He added: “After two years we’ve seen no significant wear on these collection rails and we’ve passed literally millions of spring steel rings over them in that time. That’s come through specialist knowledge from SYS Systems to advise us on the correct plastic for the application that we required.
“I can see that this print system could be applied to a wide range of industries and has two immediate benefits – one, it will save you time in getting your parts from A to B and two, it will offer you greater accuracy if you can take a CAD model of something and print that exact CAD model.
“Then you’ve got an accurate solution.”