Philips’ Lightbulb Moment: 3D Printing Becomes Essential Production Thinking

5 min read

Signify's lightbulbs in a production line

Working together, Materialise and Philips Lighting explored the benefits 3D printing could offer for components in a production environment. The first two parts they developed — a lamp holder bracket, previously prone to part failure, and a redesigned suction gripper — are together realizing cost savings of around €89,000 a year through the operational benefits they deliver.

Let there be light. It’s a simple phrase that belies the production intricacies involved in manufacturing modern lighting solutions. A true ‘life essential’, lightbulbs are required in vast volumes yet their fundamental design necessitates precision assembly of delicate materials. Add to this the harsh realities of repeated furnace heating and rapid cooling, the wear and tear of continuous production, and the absolute need for quality control, and it is clear to see that there is more to manufacturing the humble lightbulb than meets the eye.

So what if this process could be simplified? What if the assembly line itself could epitomize the concept of ‘innovative thinking’ synonymous with the end product? Materialise and Philips Lighting decided to find out by utilizing 3D printing. The collaboration has already resulted in the ‘reinvention’ of a lamp holder previously prone to part failure and the automation of a previously labor-intensive line using a lightweight design. Just these two innovations together are realizing cost savings of around €89,000 a year through the operational benefits they deliver.

Kick-starting the co-creation process

Founded in 1891 to manufacture incandescent lamps and other electrical products, Philips has been innovating for over 125 years. Employing some 850 staff, the Philips Lighting site in Turnhout (Belgium) plays a key role in maintaining that tradition and is widely recognized as the trendsetting world leader in the field of professional lighting technology. In fact, Philips Turnhout often works in partnership with research centers based in Belgium and beyond on innovations in the field of high-pressure gas discharge lamps, from concept to production.

Interested in the potential that 3D printing — particularly metal printing — could help unlock in their production process, Philips Factory Engineering Designer, Danny Van der Jonckheyd and his team invited Materialise to the site to gain an in-depth understanding of Philips’ specific production line requirements.

Sven Hermans, Business Development Manager at Materialise recalls: “You have to see a line in action to truly appreciate the demands, strains, and stresses on specific assembly elements, but also to understand the pressures on personnel. While at the site, we looked at parts and spoke with production line operatives, maintenance teams, factory engineers — as many people as we could in order to identify issues and areas ripe for enhancement that would be ideally suited to 3D-printed solutions.

“Where could the option to use lighter materials have an impact? Where could structural design impossible or too expensive to realize using traditional manufacturing techniques improve performance or reduce wastage? These were the types of questions we worked on with the team at Philips.”

Holding on to costs — printing to prevent part failure

The first part earmarked for improvement was a bracket/holder used to hold lamps in place and keep lead-in wires away from heat as torches are applied to melt and seal off glass exhaust tubes. Repeated exposure to high temperatures on a continuous line, paired with a structure featuring weld lines from a four-piece bracket assembly, meant sheering and breakage were common occurrences, with one or two failing every week.

The brackets could, and were being, repaired on site using a buffer supply of spares Philips had to store on location. However, each multi-piece unit was difficult to remove and disassemble — heat-expanded screw points a particularly troublesome issue — and could take up to two hours to fix. Also, only a limited number of repairs could take place before a completely new unit was needed, requiring a lead time of approximately eight weeks.

Working in partnership with Danny Van der Jonckheyd and his team, Materialise co-engineered and metal printed a new single structure bracket, reducing time-consuming part assembly and removing weld line pressure points completely. In the first three months of use, the re-imagined bracket has not broken once. It’s a small change that has made a significant difference. 

Close-up view of the lightbulb prodution line, with a flame heating up a component
The new bracket gets to work on the assembly line

We thought having to fix parts less often and more easily would be the biggest advantage but so far we haven’t had to replace any. Even if we were to consider this purely in terms of reduced maintenance technician time, we are already saving around €9,000 a year, plus the fact the technician can now concentrate on the real technical problems.

— Danny Van der Jonckheyd, Philips Factory Engineering Designer

Metal lightbulb production line parts, before and after redesigning for 3D printing
The design evolution of the bracket. (From L – R the original part, 3D-printed first design, 3D-printed final design)

“Less breakage means we’ve also reduced our outlay for replacement parts and, because we now have ‘digital spares’ that can be printed and delivered in just ten days, we only have to store a limited number on location.

“Also, the previous brackets required frequent cleaning to ensure friction grooves weren’t forming — caused by wire thread-through — that could damage our end-product. They had to be removed from the line in order to be maintained in this way which was time-consuming. 3D printing has enabled us to create new conical wire holders as part of the bracket, with internal channels that require much less cleaning and allow in-situ maintenance.

“But I’d say the biggest difference has been the impact this has had on the mindset of those who work here. It’s sparked a thought in everyone that we can and should do things differently — since this initial project, I’ve been approached by people from different aspects of production with ideas for other ways 3D printing can work for us. It’s truly engaged our workforce.”

Gripper revelation – less labor, lower weight, leaner cycle

Testament to this new mindset, as the lamp bracket underwent development the production team at Philips spotted another opportunity. Could 3D printing help automate an existing, highly labor-intensive process? The answer was yes.

The line in question previously required a machine operator — in continuous attendance — to physically place parts in a 12-bore gripper, apply materials, and remove finished units. Automating this process required enhancements to the vacuum suction capability of the gripper and a lighter construction still sturdy enough to withstand the strains and stresses of a ‘pick and place’ robotic action.

Danny and his team knew that 3D printing opened up huge potential in terms of alternative metal materials, textures, and internal structures that could provide a solution, and they worked with Materialise to design and print a part to put to the test. By consolidating construction (reducing the need for as many individual parts), creating curved internal channels (a unique benefit of 3D printing), and printing the gripper from aluminum (AlSi10Mg), strength and suction have improved while reducing overall unit weight — thus enabling faster, reliable movement.

Production machine in a lightbulb production with many tubes
The metal 3D-printed suction gripper installed and operational.

The gripper’s new capabilities have removed the need for time-consuming manual part placement which, over the course of a year, will save us around €80,000 and significant operator hours. On top of this, the speed facilitated by the reduced weight means our cycle time has reduced while production has increased — an optimal equation. The whole process has really opened our eyes, imaginations, and hearts to 3D printing to such an extent that I think it has become a natural component of our manufacturing toolkit.

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This case study in a few words


Consumer goods

Machinery and equipment

Solutions used


Metal 3D printing

Design and engineering

Why this approach

Cost effective replacement of a part that regularly failed with a redesigned 3D-printed metal part.

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