Labman has been at the forefront of designing custom laboratory automation products and solutions for almost 30 years – its robots can be found in over 42 countries, in locations ranging from prestigious research institutions to the development rooms of major manufacturers. With a focus on innovation and a ‘can do’, curious approach, the business is frequently called in to solve automated process puzzles thought insurmountable. And increasingly it’s using 3D printing to do it. 

In fact in just 3 years Labman has gone from never using 3DP to having printed parts in almost every single system it develops. The change has made a big difference. Why? Because as well as helping the UK business push boundaries with design, working with Materialise to make 3DP part of its everyday toolkit has helped Labman save its most precious commodity: time. By simplifying prototype and end-part creation for complex components, otherwise time-consuming, laborious and costly to create, the UK inventor has been able to shave days off its design process, more easily adapt to changing briefs, and deliver replacement parts quickly, all while allowing the business to put its own stamp on the robots it creates. 

3DP adoption, driven by design 

Established in 1979, Labman designs and manufactures tailor-made laboratory robotic solutions for liquid handling, powder feeding, sample preparation, weighing and labelling, testing samples, wet chemistry and many other applications. The sectors it serves are varied but there are common challenges the team face day-in, day-out. It’s these challenges which first led Labman to investigate 3D printing. 
“We regularly have to fit complex and precise processes into confined, compact areas”, explains Sean Devereux, Mechanical Design Engineer at Labman. “Often, that means coming up with weird and wonderful fixtures and fittings that make the impossible, possible. The design freedom 3D printing offers appealed in this respect, as we knew we could create new shapes, consolidate parts into singular structures, and use different methods and materials to make parts lighter – great for the ends of robotic arms for example. Essentially we knew it would enable us to extend our design rule book to solve problems in new and inventive ways.

“For instance, we had one project where samples had to be held in a particular way while allowing water to be shot at them. The space restrictions and precision angles required for water application meant we were facing a real head-scratcher in terms of meeting the customer’s exact requirements. Using traditional techniques it might very well have been impossible. But with 3D printing, we were able to embed the actual gripper into another part and create internal channels to deliver the water to the sample in precisely the right way. 3D printed parts may end up accounting for less than 5% of a total system but when you can solve issues like this, it can end up being one of the most important design aspects.” 


Convinced by creative convenience

What the team hadn’t expected was how easy it would be to adopt 3DP and that this would in turn deliver significant benefits. Labman uses Materialise’s OnSite service, an online solution that enables users to submit their CAD file, receive a quote and then have a 3D printed part created and delivered in a matter of days. “It’s perfect for us”, says Tom Gale, a Project Engineer at Labman. “We simply submit our designs with exact specifications and receive the part back exactly as intended.”

“Everything we create for customers is bespoke, and a large percentage of a project lies in the design process – developing a blade with the right twist profile to mix a powder in precisely the right way, or a gripper that enables a sample to be treated but not tainted – it takes a lot of time to test our ideas and find the right answer. Before we adopted 3DP, building some of these parts, testing them, tweaking the design and building them again; it could take an incredibly long time. Now we can quickly and cost-effectively print multiple prototype iterations to find exactly the right solution. And because we’ve been able to find a way to easily utilize 3D printing with OnSite, going from initial idea to final proof on concept is far quicker, which ultimately is more profitable for us and most cost effective for our customers.

Project-by-project adoption

Labman’s design process involves a detailed User Requirement Specification (URS) analysis, whereby exact functionality and performance details are mapped out and key goals broken down - dispensing a liquid in a certain way, channeling airflow over samples/materials - before the team embarks on an intense design study to develop the right solution. 

“We quickly began to see URS requirements that really leaned themselves to 3D printing, not just in terms of general suitability – I mean specific functionality common to the types of clients we work with”, explains Tom. “For example, we often need to keep cabling in place to maximize space in tight spots, while also ensuring those cables are protected against power or liquid ingress. This used to mean developing awkwardly shaped brackets that were both time-intensive and expensive to make. With 3D printing this is not the case. What Labman also discovered was the increased flexibility 3DP gave them in terms of changing briefs. Tom continues, “It is pretty common for requirements to change mid-way through a project, perhaps because of new functionality the customer wants adding or perhaps because other components are behaving in a slightly different way to what was expected. 3D printing really helps in these scenarios as you can quickly adapt the design and, in the case of using OnSite, get a new part delivered to fit the new spec.”

 

“With every new project or adaptation, we discover more. That’s how it goes, you try something new, you learn something new, you share that information – so at the same time as pushing boundaries you are making these new techniques part of the everyday process. It’s worked so well that we’ve essentially been able to develop ‘trademark’ 3D printed elements that we are known for, such as our Mobile Dispensing Units (MDUs), parts we can then easily manufacture in small series.” 


“With every new project or adaptation, we discover more. That’s how it goes, you try something new, you learn something new, you share that information – so at the same time as pushing boundaries you are making these new techniques part of the everyday process. It’s worked so well that we’ve essentially been able to develop ‘trademark’ 3D printed elements that we are known for, such as our Mobile Dispensing Units (MDUs), parts we can then easily manufacture in small series.” 


Supporting systems as shop windows

For Inventor Rob Hodgson, another important factor that has supported the company’s rapid adoption of 3DP has been customer reaction. “In addition to 3D printing parts for prototyping/feasibility testing, the quality of the materials means we are able to use printed components on our finished production machines”, says Rob. 

“With a material like Alumide, for example, you can tap it or put in nutserts, so it’s perfect for making complex metal components that can also easily be replaced if needed. And because we can use 3DP in this way, we are also able to improve the aesthetics of solutions we design. For example, many of the parts we are able to create, say in Alumide or Stainless Steel, negate the need for awkward, unattractive solutions and messy cable areas. They just look much better.

“Remember, these are often multi-million pound machines; systems that reflect major capital investment. First and foremost they have to do a job, but for many of our Blue Chip clients, how these robots look is really important. Recently we worked on a state-of-the-art robot for Liverpool University’s Materials Innovation Factory – a groundbreaking facility available to major companies all around the world. The solution we’ve provided, which features many bespoke 3D printed components, is representing the university – it has to look the part. It is a showpiece for them and effectively a shop window for us. It’s just another great business benefit that has further strengthened our adoption process.

“All these benefits combined, plus the way we’ve been able to partner with Materialise, has meant we’ve quickly normalized something new and made it work for us.”


‘Normalizing new’ down to picking the right partner

Having the ability to blend in-house design expertise with outsourced production through Materialise’s OnSite service has, for Labman, helped them quickly realize a number of key benefits. As Rob explains, “What we’ve been able to do is normalize something new by finding a way of working that suits us, and the right 3DP partner to help get us moving quickly. 

 

“We’ve then been able to build on this foundation to flex our capabilities. For example, while we have the in-house knowledge to give exact 3D print spec and processing briefs through OnSite, we also know we can also call on the design team at Materialise to help us with specific projects that may require more 3DP experience, for instance where we might have tolerance issues for certain material combinations. On the flip side to that, we’ve also introduced our own 3D printer that we can also turn to when needed. Essentially the options we now have in our toolbox means we always have a solution to suit specific project needs.”

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