Arts & crafts hobbyists who create customised greeting cards and paper art have a new tool at their disposal. Engineer Roland Gratzer from Vienna, Austria has invented a precision applicator that allows users to apply Swarovski crystals quickly and accurately on paper, cardboard and textiles. Up until now this slow and painstaking process has been done by hand. The new device has been created using the Firstcut® rapid CNC parts service from Protolabs.
Towards the end of 2010, Mr. Gratzer started GRATZER! Technologies GmbH & Co. KG to bring his new invention to market as quickly and cost-effectively as possible. Two years later and the first finished products are, at the time of writing, about to launch. Mr. Gratzer claims that the speed with which the new product has been developed owes a great deal to the services of Protolabs Ltd.
"You know,” he says, “there are many suppliers of prototypes and small series parts, but no one could offer us quality and speed comparable to Protolabs. Originally, we budgeted €50,000 for the purchase of a 3D printer and made our first advances towards stereo-lithography vendors. While they could supply parts in ABS, those parts did not have the mechanical properties we were looking for. After tests they started to show cracks. It’s at that point I remembered seeing an advertisement from Protolabs, and I decided to test the FirstQuote system. I submitted our 3D CAD models and a day later we had a quote!”
Mr. Gratzer says he decided to order CNC machined parts from Protolabs’ CNC service because, firstly, he could specify exactly the material he wanted and, secondly, the final version of the product was still to be decided, so tooling was not yet needed. “The Protolabs CNC service quite simply blew us away!” he enthuses. “The parts were 30 - 50% cheaper than the SLA process and were delivered within a few days. If we had stayed with SLA we would have had to wait several weeks. But, the best part,” he adds, “was the quality and precision.”
The product consists of 5 plastic parts and a spring. The parts are very small; the entire unit weighs only 4.5 grams assembled. There are also movements within the assembly that lead to friction. At the same time considerable pressure is needed to apply the crystals. All this requires the highest part-accuracy and durability.
“The CNC machined parts from Protolabs have proved to have very suitable mechanical properties, and we were able to try different materials to get the most appropriate.” Mr. Gratzer tested ABS, PA 66, POM, PEEK, PBT and plastics with glass-fibre (GF30). “In the end we decided to use ABS and POM. The testing was possible with Firstcut because of the quick turnaround and the highest level of quality.” Although the parts are CNC milled, they are almost indistinguishable from injection-moulded parts. “The accuracy of +/-0.1mm, is very good. "
It was only in December last year that Mr. Gratzer first made contact with Protolabs. “The acceleration of the product development phase with the help of Protolabs was amazing! Overall, the product is a very complex assembly, and from our experiments with the parts we knew they would be difficult to manufacture. However, we were able to radically simplify the design and with new CNC machined parts, prove the feasibility of the product very quickly."
The new product will be available through US Arts and Crafts supplier, Provo Craft, and is expected to sell around 3 million units. GRATZER! has also developed a biro-type device that allows the application of the Swarovski crystals by hand. This second product was also developed with the help of Protolabs. "It's so easy to obtain a quote at Protolabs,” says Mr. Gratzer. “I simply upload my 3D CAD model to the Protolabs website and within a single day I get my quote. With the express delivery service the parts are produced and delivered between one and three days. It is very fast!"
As a result of his experiences with Protolabs, Roland Gratzer is hard at work on other projects, including a product that will allow inkjet printers to apply Swarovski crystals. Initial discussions with leading printer manufacturers have already taken place, so expect to see more exciting and creative products from GRATZER! in the near future.