The shape of water

16 September 2019

Grohe’s latest bathroom fittings are part luxury, part optical illusion. Stephen Holmes learns how the company’s adoption of 3D printing is helping its ambitious designs to flow

We’re discussing Grohe’s first 3D-printed products with the company’s VP of design Michael Seum. This includes an artfully shaped spout where the water appears to magically pour out from nowhere. “We wanted to make sure the consumers were a little bit intrigued by it,” he says from Grohe’s design studio in Düsseldorf, Germany. “They were literally left confused.”

Judging by the reactions from customers; its designs were a complete success.

“The question is: where does the water come out, and can we do that?” says Seum, adding that the perplexing qualities of the product were fully embraced and made a reality by Grohe’s technical team.

The components are all produced using a powder bed laser melting process, which allows the water to flow up through channels built inside the thin walls.

The parts consist of approximately 4,700 layers that are each 0.06 millimetres thick, before being CNC machined, followed by a manual grinding and fine brushing procedure as the last step of the finish.

The elaborate process reflects the exclusivity of the Icon 3D series; each product is unique and the collection is limited to a few pieces per year, available on request as an exclusive piece for the bathroom.

Grohe has long used 3D printing for its prototypes, and has even taken to using metals 3D printing for its plastics injection moulding tooling, creating cooling channels closer to the part so to reduce its manufacturing times.

For CEO Thomas Fuhr, it has always been exciting to see what 3D printing technology can deliver, besides an end product, but this project was special.

“Michael is always challenging the technical team with his great ideas for designs,” he says, sat alongside Seum. “Designers have very good ideas, but are not manufacturers, so the question was: how do you get it done?”

“We thought ‘let’s think big’ and see what we can do!”

Immediately, they were struck with a challenge: legislation. “We are handling the most secured item in the world, which is drinking water. Around drinking water, believe it or not, there are tons of regulations – for good reasons!”

The product would have to be 100% compliant with each of the different sets of regulations in every country around the world. “We wanted to find a recipe for one-part-fits-all.”

Parts from powder

In response, Grohe’s research teams set about concocting a suitable formula for steel powder that could be used in a selective laser sintering process, with the result since being patented.

“I think the material investment really helped the design,” says Seum. “A lot of times with this technology, because it’s built on layering, you have pockets that develop, so by really diving into the material sciences you will get better fidelity in the printing, which is better water-safe features. We have a lot of IP around these features.”

“I’m quite happy with the finish capabilities on the material as well,” he adds.

“That’s the other part that comes into the equation: the average consumer wouldn’t understand that what they see on the outside is the same on the inside.

The outer is finished to a higher degree, giving it a gleaming shine, but the process required to do so is not labour-intensive.

With the materials and process in place, the design began to take shape, based on an evolution of Grohe’s Atrio and Allure Brilliant product lines.

“From the design side, we always start with the consumer and what will excite them,” says Seum. “This is a case where we took an existing product line and reinterpreted it with what’s possible with 3D printing, versus traditional manufacturing.

“This is one of many technologies that we’re investigating and I think you can see side-by-side some of the freedoms you get with 3D printing, but at the same time there’s constraints on printing times, size of the print. We cannot do large scale objects.”

The designs began as sketches before transitioning through the abundance of 3D CAD software with which Grohe’s designers work: Alias and Rhino for conceptual work, Solidworks and Siemens Solid Edge for solid modelling and for transferring the designs to the engineering and manufacturing teams.

“When I heard we were going to make the investment in 3D printing I got super-excited – I think I put more ideas on the table than ever!” says Seum, sat with the original prototypes on the table in front of him, side-by-side with the finished product.

“It’s striking in the sense that very little of it changed. We made some adjustments to proportions, we had to make some adjustments to the nuances of the material, but I’ll never forget when I put these in the room.”

Laser show

The faucets and taps were produced on Grohe’s in-house SLS 3D printer, which has been specially optimised for Grohe’s needs by its manufacturer, Trumpf.

“We are doing a lot of development work with Trumpf,” says Fuhr. “We believe in the technology, and I think that if you believe in it, then you need to manage it and have the knowledge. If we’re convinced in the technology, then we want to master it!”

It becomes clear from speaking to both the design lead and the man in charge of operations that additive manufacturing is about more than creating eye-catching designs.

Additive manufacturing allows them to make slight variations on an existing design – a taller spout for example viable over traditional manufacturing without the need for volume production.

In a world where consumers are wanting more options and customisation, additive opens new doors.

It’s a path that Grohe is supporting at all levels, says Seum, explaining more about the company’s program for young talent and how it gives teams the opportunity to work on what the future business models might be for things like 3D printing.

“I think we make investments not just in the technology, but in the early stage understanding of what’s possible with the technology, the implications it will have and scenarios where it can be used in the future,” he says.

“This is just the tip of the iceberg for us. We’re producing parts that are saleable, but there’s been a lot of investment in capability and the understanding of the technology and the implications of it.”

While the Icon 3D products might create an optical illusion, the future for Grohe’s designs is easier to see.

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