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BMW gives thumbs-up to 3D printing with custom-created thumbs

Workers in a BMW factory are being issued thumb guards specifically tailored to their hands as they build cars.


BMW is giving the thumbs-up to 3D printing. The German car manufacturer is 3D-printing unique custom thumb guards for workers assembling cars to relieve the strain on their digits.

With the help of the Department of Ergonomics at the Technical University of Munich, BMW has created "flexible finger cots" that are custom-created for workers in a Munich factory. Each finger cot is unique, modelled to specifically fit each worker's thumb.


The orthotic device acts as a splint to reinforce the thumb joint when workers are pushing home rubber plugs. They're made of reinforced thermoplastic polyurethane open at the thumb joint for movement, with the upper and lower parts locking when the thumb is straightened in order to spread the effort of pushing in the plug across the whole thumb.

3D printing, sometimes known as additive production, involves creating a three-dimensional design or, in this case, scanning an existing item -- a worker's hand -- from every angle. That three-dimensional model is then recreated by dividing it into infinitesimally thin layers, and building each layer from plastic or metal to create the new item. 3D printing is great for quickly developing prototypes, or creating low-cost custom components, jewellery or unique items. BMW has previously used 3D printing to create custom wheelchair seats for the Great Britain paralympic team at the London Olympics in 2012.

In this case, a selective laser sintering (SLS) process is used to fuse each layer of plastic powder -- as thin as a human hair -- with a CO2 laser, slowly building up the finished product slice-by-slice.

Established in 1917 as an aircraft engine builder, BMW is now the parent company of Mini and Rolls-Royce, with 28 production and assembly facilities in 13 countries. In 2013, BMW sold around 2 million cars and 115,215 motorcycles around the world.

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