Workers at a BMW plant in Munich, Germany are getting 3D-printed prosthetic thumbs aka "super thumbs". The thumbs were printed using a thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU) material using an industrial 3D printer.
To get each worker's measurement, a mobile hand scanner is used. The result is what seems like a second skin printed layer by layer. The said super-thumb is made to provide comfort and safety to the workers, as well as, help reduce stress on one's joints.
Each flexible thumb glove is customized to match the size of a worker. It is flexible and comfortable to use but becomes firm when straightened. This allows the worker to press down on things with less effort.
BMW is working with Technical University of Munich's Department of Ergonomics. A group of students are working on their dissertation project and tapped the car manufacturer. The two are currently testing the 3D-printed thumbs inside the factory. According to BMW, the new technology is an effort to provide the best possible support to their workers.
"These have to be pressed in with the thumb. Even for people with strong hand muscles, this movement requires a certain effort," a representative of BMW said.
BMW doesn't want to damage the thumbs of the workers so it came up with a hi-tech solution. The 3D printer was instrumental in bringing this project to fruition and looks like this won't be the last time.
Most of the works inside the Munich factory may be automated by human workers are still needed. With the plastic thumbs, strain is obviously reduced.
Employees are happy with the tests.
"In initial practical tests, the feedback of workers was very positive. It is currently being evaluated how the assembly aids can be applied as standard tools in further production areas," BMW says.
Results are positive but no mention if BMW will make this a standard. If this technology is implemented, we can expect similar efforts to come up. It only proves that BMW cares for their employees.
This development also adds to the many reasons why 3D printing technology has a bright future. Flexible plastics are not the only 3D printable material available. It may be too early to tell but the possibilities are endless.