When Advatek Lighting needed to develop a housing for a new digital LED control system, it turned to the Additive Manufacturing Hub for assistance.

Advatek Lighting is a small business dedicated to developing innovative, world-class control systems for decorative LED lighting. The type of lighting is commonly referred to as “Pixel” technology, where each LED can be digitally controlled to be any colour using specially designed integrated circuits. Advatek’s control systems are state-of-the-art in the field and typically interface between lighting software using an Ethernet network interface and many different types of digital LEDs. Advatek has been operating for around five years now and has a growing customer base worldwide. Approximately 80% of its business comes from international sales.

The challenge

This project entailed the design of a plastic enclosure to form part of a new digital LED control system. The goal was to create a robust but cost-effective housing for part of the system, which would have been difficult to achieve with a typical metal enclosure. Tightly placed electronic components, connectors and fuses all needed access from multiple angles in a small overall footprint. This meant the design would be complex, heavy and expensive to achieve with folded sheet metal.

Given those constraints, it was apparent that plastic enclosures would be more suitable. However, the costs and processes involved with a typical injection moulding set-up presented a significant barrier to entry. Additionally, it was uncertain whether Advatek’s key markets would be receptive to the product being made in a custom plastic housing, when traditionally the industry favours the use of very robust metal enclosures for rugged, commercial applications.

Therefore, it was deemed risky, as well as expensive and slow, to move directly to an injection moulding set-up without first exploring how the physical product might look and feel.

The solution

In undertaking the project, the Additive Manufacturing Hub (AM Hub) engaged the assistance of registered service providers Cobalt Design and GoProto. An additive manufacturing (AM) program using current 3D printing techniques (including the more specialised Multi Jet Fusion process) was identified as an excellent way to mitigate many of the above concerns.

The project started off with a design concept phase, which explored various aesthetic concepts. Advatek aimed to keep the product physically strong, with an appearance that showed that to the end user.

Once the initial CAD design was completed, the first prototypes were complete the following day after an overnight 3D printing run. This rapid process allowed Advatek to iterate the concept multiple times in a short period and make key decisions related to size, features and aesthetics. For example, the first prototype felt too large for some of the intended applications; it was decided to focus on size reduction, including an external DIN rail clip system instead of an internal one. The result was a reduction in volume of approximately 30%. These drastic changes were only realistic because it was quick and cheap to simply try again with a new design.

While the initial prototypes were useful to quickly narrow down to the best overall concept, they weren’t suitable for customer feedback or determining which features would work best for the fuse cover lid. This is where the Multi Jet Fusion (MJF) process took over for the remainder of the project. It was a fast way to 3D print prototypes at a quality that is production-ready.

Using the MJF process, Advatek could test retention features for the fuse lid, which involved features to hold it closed and open, as well as allowing it to pop on and off if the end user accidentally knocks it too hard while open. These concepts were relatively complex compared to the main enclosure and required experimentation and multiple iterations. Various rib types and chamfers were tested to see how they held up in real-world testing using MJF prints.

The MJF process also allowed Advatek to show prototype versions to customers for feedback about the design concept without undermining their overall opinion regarding the quality of the parts.

How the Additive Manufacturing Hub helped

It was predicated that the project would make full use of a $20,000 Build It Better (BIB) voucher co-contribution through the AM Hub. The estimated breakdown amounts for this project were:

  • $28,000 to Cobalt Design ($14,000 to be contributed via the BIB voucher)
  • $12,000 to GoProto ($6,000 to be contributed via the BIB voucher)

In the end, a total of $46,047.60 was spent with the two registered providers (ex GST). Of this amount, $20,000 was contributed by the BIB voucher and the remaining $26,047.60 was paid by Advatek Lighting. The following were the breakdowns per RSP:

  • Cobalt Design $44,697.35
  • GoProto $1,350.25

The cost of GoProto’s services was lower than expected because Cobalt was able to take care of 3D printing many prototypes in-house directly, and because fewer MJF prototypes were needed for customer feedback than initially estimated. The cost of Cobalt’s services was higher than expected because of increased complexity as the project scope changed during the development.

According to Luke Taylor, Managing Director of Advatek: “The Build it Better program gave the perfect opportunity to take advantage of this technology. The program allowed Advatek to design, experiment with and ultimately create a high-quality product out of plastics. Where the alternative was going to be a cumbersome, heavy metal box, the AM capabilities available in Victoria today enabled a rapid development of a superior product.”

The outcome

Over the course of the project, new features could easily be added along the way, allowing innovation without disruption to business goals and deadlines. Final product weights were minimised, reducing logistics costs and emissions into the future and aiding in cost-effective international trade.

During the design concept phase the idea was raised of having a plastic lid cover over the fuse area. It would not have been possible to produce this in metal, and the features required to make it work reliably in plastic were complicated and required experimentation. However, the AM process that Advatek used for prototyping allowed it to conduct those experiments easily. Therefore, the feature was added to the concept and made its way through to the final product, resulting in an improved design.

Another noteworthy feature that was added in at a late stage was LED fuse indicators. Previously considered complex and risky, this feature was added as a last-minute feature after the use of AM had proven itself a successful approach in the project. With the rapid development processes in place to allow another change without significantly impacting the cost and timeline, Advatek worked on the feature and was able to include it on the final product.

Advatek is already planning to use the AM processes employed in this project in the near future and on an ongoing basis. Currently planned processes for future development are standard 3D printing and MJF for plastics only at this stage. There are other AM concepts that can be explored for future projects, such as for the prototyping of printed circuit boards (PCBs) and for the manufacture of injection mould tooling.

Since MJF technology is available in Victoria, Advatek was able to keep more of the project in Australia, which created more opportunity for the local economy, reduced emissions from freighting products back and forth with international partners, and importantly, allowed much faster experimentation and ultimately time to market. Support for local business and employment has been increased by keeping the prototyping in Victoria and increasing sales opportunities for Advatek with a more innovative product. There has already been great reception to this product internationally and export sales are expected to increase by at least 30% by the middle of 2020. New employment opportunities at Advatek are expected from the increased revenue, mainly in production roles initially. The intellectual property developed in this project is also being leveraged as part of a new product line that will result in increased sales, support and engineering capacity and employment at Advatek.

Led by AMTIL and supported by the Victorian Government, the Additive Manufacturing Hub has been established to grow and develop additive manufacturing capability. To find out more, contact John Croft, AM Hub Manager, on 03 9800 3666, or email jcroft@amtil.com.au.