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Research and development, accelerated prototyping and perfected bathroom design

Image credit: Proto Labs

Turn on the tap and enjoy a cascade of sparkling water! A great deal of expertise goes into this apparently simple pleasure. Getting the water flow just right: not too hard nor too soft, not too sparing nor too wasteful, countless times a day, year in year out, going from very cold to very hot and always ensuring there’s a wow factor – that’s the way Hansgrohe designs their taps.

The company puts a significant amount of effort into prototyping each new design to win over consumers with their range of models.  To receive chrome-plated prototypes with flexibility, speed and scale, Hansgrohe turned to Proto Labs.

Founded by Hans Grohe in 1901, the company has always strived to be bold and innovative. To begin, the business focused entirely on home plumbing; an industry burgeoning in the early 1900s; Hansgrohe’s initial success was the introduction of metal showerheads.   Some years later, Grohe (then aged 82) is credited with the invention of the riser rail, making it possible to adjust the showerhead to any height desired.  Other milestones in shower culture can be attributed to Hansgrohe, including the world’s first hand-held shower with an adjustable jet (the “Selecta”) and selling more than 30 million units. The Axor brand was born in 1992, bringing individual designer collections and unusual bathroom and room concepts into the world of Hansgrohe.

Hansgrohe – leading global brand

Now one of the leading global producers of taps and shower, Hansgrohe’s headquarters is located in the tranquil Black Forest area of South-West Germany.  This is where the company houses 2,250 employees (of 3,800 worldwide), with the design department, research and development and the extensive prototyping section based here. 

30,000 prototypes a year

Jochen Armbruster heads up the R&D and prototyping function at Hansgrohe. The company benefits from its own prototyping section on-site with a pool of CNC machines, various rapid prototyping processes and 3D printers. Jochen comments, “We manufacture around 30,000 prototypes a year, ranging from basic bodies and handles to internals and valve components. Because we are focused on plumbing, 95% of the sample parts have the typical chrome or stainless steel appearance. The rest are specialties such as white chrome and other colours.”

Top level design

The large number of prototypes can be explained by the company’s emphasis on design. Jochen Armbruster describes it like this, “We represent a high standard of form and function and this is reflected all the way through to the top management levels. While elsewhere just a few design engineers create a product that then goes straight on sale, here whole management committees are involved in making decisions so they contribute to new designs from the outset.

What’s more, our marketplace always expecting something new – products are often launched at one of the international trade fairs. When new designs come to market, there is generally an initial whirlwind of excitement quickly followed by imitation design from competitors who want to set and embrace market trends. To stay ahead of the competition, we generate a rapid succession of new products which are sold before the copying cycle begins. For Hansgrohe customers our differentiator is the quality of our products, borne from a drive for perfection which is inherent within the brand.”

Proto Labs

Perfecting the chrome ‘look’

Producing the typical chrome effect on our prototypes using in-house machinery is a time-consuming process. Jochen Armbruster explains, “First, there’s processing of the brass block on the CNC machines, then comes manual grinding and polishing, and finally the blanks are sent to the electroplating shop before being returned to the prototyping section for assembly. Only when the prototypes are ready can the decision be made as to which design will make its way into the range.

In the past we worked with chrome optical methods to speed this process up i.e. painting processes were used. However, this cannot recreate the kind of surface produced in the electroplating process - sharp edges in particular simply aren’t possible. Then we came across Proto Labs. At Proto Labs, additive manufacturing (3D printing) processes are used to rapidly create the basic body which is then coated with a chrome surface similar to that produced during our electroplating process.” 

Proto Labs speeds up the process

For Jochen Armbruster, discovering Proto Labs was the optimal solution to increasing their product time to market through rapid prototyping, combined with the demand for a high quality surface finish. For example, launching a new product at one of the leading trade shows requires a lot of advance preparation – at least six months prior to launch, product photography is required for promotional brochures, catalogues and other advertising and sales promotions, before the series products are even finished. “For promotional photo shoots we need near-series products with virtually perfect surfaces. We can achieve this with 3D printing.  Plus, additive methods can be used to implement internal geometries that are not feasible with milling – this is because the series products are not actually milled, but cast.”

Further processing possible

The similarity between the Proto Labs chrome effect parts and the finished product gives customer option. The Axor range offers customers the option to have their taps made up in different metallic finishes. To assess these looks in advance, the chrome-plated prototypes from Proto Labs are metallised in a high vacuum at Hansgrohe. They react to the PVD coating in the same way as actual parts and it’s then possible to reach a decision about the desired colour. 

Brilliant speed statistics

With Proto Labs, the lead time from commissioning a part with a surface look to receiving it is achieved in less than ten days. Jochen Armbruster reflects on the turn-around speed provided by Proto Labs, “In R&D, speed counts. We are design-driven and are ranked in the IF World Design Guide top ten, ahead of companies such as Apple, Daimler or BSH. Our design process involves producing a large number of tangible samples which are selected for production based on their look and feel. In the case of a mixer tap, for example, it’s important to see the three-dimensional impact of the changes to certain positions and radii. 3D images or even VR renderings viewed using 3D glasses are simply not good enough for this. There's no substitute for real-life samples when testing products with end-users in field trials.”

Intensifying cooperation

Jochen Armbruster is delighted to be collaborating with Proto Labs, “Our account team at Proto Labs really understands our protoyping requirements. Even so, we will point out our priorities and highlight the details to be reproduced as precisely as possible.  In our conventional prototyping process, we have a labour-intensive workflow for chrome surfaces with at least 15 steps; with Proto Labs, we simply order the parts and have them back in just a few days. The Proto Labs process is quick and efficient and is supported by an effective working relationship which we intend to continue to strengthen in the future.”

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