Good material prototyping thanks to 3D printing

The French group Decathlon is constantly looking for innovations in the field of sport and leisure: who has never heard of the 2-second tent, diving masks or even their windsurfing kit? It must be said that the company has surrounded itself with a solid team of engineers and designers, with more than 65 patents filed in 2019. Added to this is the “AddLab”, its laboratory dedicated to additive manufacturing, which allows both to imagine prototypes and finished parts more quickly thanks to a complete machine park, from FDM to Multi Jet Fusion. Among Decathlon’s 3D printers is the Pollen AM technology in which the group has invested since the opening of the AddLab more than 6 years ago. Today, it has two PAM Series P machines which allow it to produce “good material” prototypes, that is to say functional prototypes close to the real material of the final product which will enable its characteristics and functions to be validated. Decathlon’s designers and engineers rely on Pollen AM technology and the range of materials offered to quickly validate their innovations, regardless of their complexity.

Historically, additive manufacturing has always been used for rapid prototyping: thanks to a 3D printer, a company can quickly obtain a first visualization of its product and provide it with the necessary iterations. If the technology allows to have this overview, it does not necessarily offer a characterization of the material: how to test the mechanical characteristics of my future part? Its chemical properties? And how can you be sure that the results obtained on a 3D printed prototype will be the same as on a molded part? This is where 3D printing processes based on granules are interesting because the material undergoes fewer transformations than a filament for example and therefore has characteristics closer to those of injection molding. This is one of the reasons that led Decathlon to choose Pollen AM technology: the objective was to print prototypes with the material used in large-scale production to obtain properties as close as possible.

A 3D printed ski pole washer prototype (photo credits: Decathlon)

Good material prototyping thanks to Pollen AM technology

Jimmy Gantier is the Good Materials Prototyping Manager for the AddLab at Decathlon. He takes care of the prints made on the Pollen AM machines. He explained to us: My job is to manage the material and the way of printing. Concretely, a designer or engineer comes to see me and provides me, beyond his 3D file, with the material that will be used in large-scale productions. I will then characterize the material to print it on the Pollen. This allows me to design prototypes that will be used for use or laboratory tests to directly study the behavior of the part with the right material. For certain categories of products, we will then be able to modify the product more quickly, without going through molding stages which are time-consuming, expensive and which represent a certain energy cost.. Today, the PAM Series P machines 3D print many prototypes based on TPE, TPU or SEBS, in particular for water sports such as diving masks or different types of soles. The number of prototypes designed varies according to their size but one thing is certain, the pace is under control.

Thomas is a product engineer at SUBEA, Decathlon’s underwater sports brand. He explains the interest of Pollen AM’s technology for his activity: ” One of the greatest difficulties in designing a mask today is to ensure the seal of the product on the greatest number of different faces. We make a first 3D, often inspired by existing face contacts that we must then test as best we can before opening the industrial mold (10 weeks / a few tens of thousands of euros). In recent years, we used a prototype mold (8 weeks / nearly 10K euros) for the first iterations, which were long and costly, to then open an industrial mold that we systematically rework. Numerical simulation has allowed us to greatly reduce the iterations on the prototype mold but not yet to do without it. Completing it with good material prototyping thanks to Pollen AM could allow us to move from the digital model to the industrial mold without an intermediate mould. We could save up to 3 months and €20,000, not to mention the CO2 impact of a mold made in Asia and dozens of parts sent by plane. For the moment, Decathlon has used this process for a first concept and has been able to validate the tightness of the prototype. The teams will validate the correlation between this printed model and a very similar model injected into a prototype mould.

Different prototypes of diving masks have been 3D printed (photo credits: Decathlon)

One of the advantages of Pollen AM 3D printers is the possibility of using a wide variety of elastomers with a very low Shore hardness and therefore better flexibility. Decathlon is able to design prototypes with different Shore 00, SHORE A and/or SHORE D and expand its range of flexible materials as much as possible. The group has also carried out a whole process of reflection around the mounting plates and printing supports for each of the elastomers used. Indeed, Jimmy has characterized all the materials to associate them with the best possible soluble support. This allows both to imagine more and more complex designs but also to save time. As the support dissolves in water, the post-processing does not require human labor and therefore no downtime in human time.

Jimmy continues: Another important advantage of the Pollen AM machines is the multi-extrusion. We can print up to 4 materials which is extremely interesting. For example, for ski poles, I can design a very hard shell and a rim with a rather flex elastomer and soluble supports. In just a few hours, I can create a prototype with several materials and very complex geometry. The two Pollen AM machines are also used to produce certain parts that will simulate over-moulding. They are also used for replace materials.

At Decathlon, the teams are sensitive to the environmental impact of their product. Thanks to additive manufacturing, and more particularly to materials compatible with Pollen AM technology, due to time and financial savings, they can easily imagine and test prototypes with a more virtuous material.

These prototypes have also been tested (photo credits: Decathlon)

A manufacturer attentive to needs

If Decathlon is now able to make the most of Pollen AM technology, it is also thanks to a collaboration that works. The French group produces regular reports and reports errors and any interesting developments to the manufacturer, allowing it to adjust its machines and find solutions. Jimmy explains: Pollen AM offers me its innovations and I send them my problems and my ideas. We put everything in common to offer the best solution according to the type of material. The exchanges are constructive, there is a real relationship that has been created and which is essential in my work today. I can count on their responsive customer service – this is very important when you work non-stop with 3D printers, especially FDM. We are very satisfied with our 3D printers, whether in terms of maintenance, materials, speed. They can process all elastomers and print several materials at the same time, it is a considerable advantage when you are prototyping good material. »

The Pollen AM team adds: “ Even if the FDM process is particularly democratized in the industry, many companies use closed systems which do not offer operators the possibility of building skills on the method aspect of the FDM process. For 10 years, we have been providing open systems and it seems obvious to us that our support function is the pillar of the success of our users, but also of ours. Our link with Decathlon, and our customers in general, allows us to stay as close as possible to their daily lives in order to provide our method (system) expertise through specific training modules or to meet a need through targeted development. »

good material prototyping

Photo credits: Decathlon

Decathlon’s future projects

Jimmy told us that the group’s future developments around Pollen AM technology mainly concern materials. He will indeed start work on 100% biodegradable and bio-engineered materials ; it is a question of testing granules made from plant waste. The objective is to understand whether their behavior can allow them to be associated with a Decathlon product. If you want to know more about it, click HERE.

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