“An investment in the future”

For some it is just a blue container, for Ralf Anderhofstadt it is a factory of the future. The head of the 3D Printing Centre of Competence at Daimler Buses has a vision: to produce parts decentrally worldwide - from plastic, metal and in the future even from rubber and glass. We talked to him about how exactly he wants to achieve this and why it is also sustainable.

Mr Anderhofstadt, how can one imagine your job?

The great thing is that my work is incredibly diverse and offers new challenges almost every day. I head the 3D Printing Centre of Competence at Daimler Buses; in other words, my team and I are responsible for testing, promoting and using industrial 3D printing in our production processes.

To the point: What is 3D printing?

3D printing is an additive manufacturing process. In the process, material is “added” layer by layer until a three-dimensional object is created. 3D printing differs from subtractive processes where the object is formed from a block by cutting, milling, drilling or grinding. 3D printing allows us to make complex shapes, even interlocking ones, more easily.

What materials are used in the process?

At Daimler Buses, 3D printing is currently used primarily for plastic parts in the interior. The focus is therefore currently on various polymers. But we also produce parts made of metal, e.g. aluminum. In addition, the first experiments with rubber and glass are underway. We are also in the process of developing steel alloys with our partners.

We are here in your mobile "mini-factory". What is this about?

The topics of transport and storage are becoming increasingly important – both from a financial and from a sustainability point of view. This means that transporting and storing parts is expensive and produces CO2 emissions. With our mini-factory, we have the possibility to place 3D printers at locations where parts are needed and print them overnight. At the same time, we save the transport. It also enables us to guarantee the high quality of our printed products.

The "mini-factory": a container with a complete 3D printing system. 

Sounds like you are keeping with the times.

The topic of 3D printing will become more and more important in the next 10 to 15 years. Our idea bases on the classical, physical model: We have a "digital warehouse" from which you retrieve a dataset, a kind of "3D printing template", for a required part, including the associated building instructions. Our system then sends the dataset to a decentralised 3D printer or to our mini-factory and prints it out there.

Doesn't that also open up a completely new business model?

Exactly! In addition, we now also offer various consulting services around 3D printing for customers from other industries. The range of services spans from workshops to support with digital warehousing issues.

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What is your vision or goal?

Our vision is to produce our genuine parts decentrally within the shortest possible time to ensure optimal availability for our customers. Our mobile mini-factory is an important basis for this. Another is licence management. Our customers purchase 3D printing licences that define exactly how often a part may be printed.

What are the advantages of 3D printing?

Quite a few. 3D printing is really an investment in the future for us as a company. On the one hand, our business model increases efficiency - it saves on tooling or storage costs, for example. On the other hand, it allows for more flexibility: For example, customers can individualize parts piece by piece; in addition, significantly shorter delivery times are feasible.

What does 3D printing mean from a sustainability perspective?

In fact, there is a lot of potential - in the manufacturing process, in materials, in the circular economy and in transport and storage. A study by the Delft University of Technology predicts that global energy consumption can be reduced by up to 25 per cent by 2050 through the use of 3D printing.

And specifically for us?

We currently have 1,300 parts on offer in our digital warehouse. We have calculated how the CO₂ consumption compares to 1,300 physical parts. In storage, for example, we are already saving more than 40 percent CO₂ because we do not need electricity and heating for the corresponding areas.

During transport, we significantly reduce the CO₂ footprint, too.. With 1,300 different parts, we have CO₂ emissions of about 300 tonnes per year by sea, land or air. In comparison, sending the data digitally results in a reduction to just a quarter tonne per year.

What are the challenges of 3D printing?

Although 3D printing has been developed for about 30 years now, the technology is still in its infancy. However, a lot will happen in the coming years - also because the demand is constantly increasing. Of course - as with any new technology - you have to get people involved. 3D printing will change job profiles and you have to prepare for that - we as a company have already successfully taken the first steps.

Talking with you, one literally can feel your motivation. Where does it come from?

(Laughs.) For me, I can say: I love my job. When I think that the project emerged from a think tank with five colleagues in 2015 and now I see how the whole team, including all cross-functional areas, has grown and is dedicated with full enthusiasm, the motivation comes on its own. Even more so if you work in a company that gives you the trust and the opportunities to deliver.

No half measures ...

I see 3D printing as an opportunity because ...
... it delivers great added value for our customers, our company and the environment.
If I could produce any part in 3D printing, that would be ...
... human organs so that more lives can be saved.
One project I am particularly proud of is ...
... our digital business model, which we will soon expand even further...