Shining New Light
Daisuke Takeda, engineering group and light-guide plate production group
A projector light using 3D printed lens
Katsuhiko Seki of Shimada’s engineering group
Shimada Precision has successfully launched its own product, an original lighting unit, developed with 3D printing.
Shimada Precision is an optical plastic casting manufacturer based in Kyoto. While its forte is producing precision-molded transparent plastic resins, Shimada has also developed a reputation for light-guide-plate technology, which uses the internal reflection of transparent resins to allow plate surfaces to emit light. These light-guide plates are widely used in LCD backlights, automobile lamps, display guides and illuminations.
Shimada has improved this technology, perfecting smaller and thinner plates, but its business for this technology primarily comes from customized requests. Shimada develops prototypes based on customers’ specifications and produces the plates upon the customer’s approval.
Satisfying customers was a top priority, but Shimada also wanted to increase efficiency. “As long as we do things this way, we are not going to be able to shed our reputation as a ‘single-item’ production house or subcontractor,” said Daisuke Takeda of Shimada’s engineering group and light-guide plate production group. “We need to bolster our own development capacity and change our business model for presenting proposals to our customers.”
Instead of creating products on a case-by-case basis, Shimada decided to take a stronger role in product development, and became a more proposal-based business. To change course, Shimada turned to 3D printing.
Takeda and his colleagues wanted to develop assembled products in-house. They chose a product referred to as a modularized light-guide unit, which consists of an enclosure with an integrated light source mounted to the light-guide plate.
“So far almost everything other than the light-guide plate itself was provided by the customers, so there was really no room for us to incorporate our own ideas. If we can present an entirely new light-guide unit that includes the light source and enclosure, it will really strengthen our development capability,” said Takeda.
Shimada realized a 3D printer would save significant time and labor in producing the lightguide unit in-house. In 2013, Shimada began researching and testing 3D printers. Takeda and his colleagues knew whatever 3D printer they purchased had to work with transparent resin, have easy-to-remove support material, and provide superior resolution and precision. When they factored in modeling size, their winning candidate was the Objet30 Pro 3D Printer.
“The material was a very decisive factor,” said Takeda, who appreciated the printer’s eight material options. “I was very surprised at the quality of the transparent material, VeroClear. It has superior transparency properties compared to similar materials from other companies, so it allows us to take full advantage of our light-guide unit without any loss of light.”
The 3D printer’s support material removal also met Shimada’s criteria. While some domestic manufacturers promote water-soluble materials intended to minimize the labor necessary to remove the product from its support, the Objet30 Pro 3D Printer uses a water jet rinsing method. Takeda said, “We found that this process was much easier, and we don’t have to wait for the water-soluble support to dissolve, so we can complete our work faster.”
Also, Takeda and his team were pleased to work with Stratasys, a global leader in 3D printing with established local sites and reliable maintenance and after-market support. “The printers are very practical from the standpoint of maintenance and the cost of replacement parts, too,” said Katsuhiko Seki of the technology group. “We can easily handle most of the day-to-day maintenance on our own.”
Steady Stream of Proposals for New Industry
It’s now much easier and quicker to develop the light-guide units with the 3D printer. And now that Takeda and his team can consistently produce prototypes in-house, they are more confident developers.
“In the past, we had to outsource all of our circuit-board designs, like the LED controllers, but now that we are able to make it all ourselves, we have become much more interested in moving in that direction."
Seki points out that 3D printers have had a secondary effect: disseminating engineering skill throughout the company.
After introducing the 3D printers, Takeda and his team have worked to develop a host of new products. In the automotive industry, for example, they’ve produced excellent designs for lighting and a panel that illuminates car logos beneath your feet when you open the door. In addition, they’ve created innovative road construction indicators that use the LED light-guide unit. The printer has grounded Shimada’s proposals in an industry where it had never set foot.
“We have some products that have almost passed the proposal stage and are just about ready to be cast as prototypes. Almost all of the parts were made with the 3D printer, including the plastic lenses,” said Takeda. “I never realized that we would be able to produce such elaborate prototypes at such a low cost.”