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Ewloe, United Kingdom
Writing, tweeting, debating and occasionally getting a little over-excited about 3D Printing. But always aiming to keep it real!

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

The AM Ancillary Problem

OpEd for Disruptive Insight, Issue 6 (unedited)

There is a problem around the Additive Manufacturing (AM) and 3D printing industry that never quite gets enough oxygen but is never far from the surface. It certainly is not going to go away any time soon.

I would be the last person (or at least one of the last people) to dispute the amazing capabilities of AM and 3D printing hardware systems used for industrial applications. I never get bored of watching the faces of people seeing a complex part off an AM machine for the first time, and the incredulous looks increasing as the process is explained to them. And yes, while more infrequent these days, it still happens. (But that’s a story for another day.)

The ability to build complex parts, in one piece, and the advantages this brings of increased strength, lighter weight, reduced material consumption and assembly component consolidation for an increasing range of applications are all well documented and justifiable drivers for this technology group.

However, oftentimes, the focus for these advantages is singularly the additive hardware that build the parts layer by layer. This is understandable up to a point — it’s the enabling process where the advantages listed above materialise — but in reality, for new (and even regular) users, it does not convey the full picture of what is required to get that part “off the machine.”

AM hardware systems are part of an extensive ecosystem of technologies that enbable it, both pre- and post-process. These days there is greater emphasis being placed on the pre-processing discipline of Design for AM (DfAM), file preparation and file format in terms of technology development, debate and awareness. In the previous issue of Disruptive Insight Kruno Knezic addressed some the the issues around design software and skills and highlights some of the progress.

Where there is still shade is around the in-process and post-processing extras — specifically the ancillary hardware that is often critical to an additive process but gets overlooked in terms of its contribution to the end result, the time it adds to the actual build time, the space it consumes and, most notably, the cost it adds to the purchase price — rarely talked about.

This is not actually a new problem born of the many new processes and machines now available on the market. Historically, Stereolithography systems have always required curing ovens, often larger than the AM machine itself. Similarly, the Laser Sintering machines of the 1990’s needed powder handling /removal systems and recycling hoppers and sieves. Not to mention the Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for machine operators. The post-processing options for plastic sintered parts back then, also invariably required infiltration operations, as well as finishing processes, particularly if aesthetics were important alongside the strength advantages that laser sintering offered. The Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM) process also required finishing processes to eliminate the very obvious stepping effect of the process during its early years —baths of chemicals, and later water baths for water soluble supports  were common requirements, not to mention the endless sanding .

As we head into the final quarter of this current decade, additive processes and the materials used to build parts are considerably more advanced than they were in the 1990’s. I’m stating the obvious now, but the materials palette is much broader; resolution, accuracy and repeatability are consistently meeting the industrial requirements for critical prototyping, tooling and some production applications. What is still frequently overlooked, however, is that these achievements often require secondary processes — that barely ever get a mention. Certainly not in the marketing materials or the sales pitches. As stated above these secondary processes require considerable investment, financially (of course) that can double the price of the actual 3D printer; but also time and floor space.

It is noticeable that the term “post-processing” is often used interchangeably with “finishing” — this is somewhat of a misnomer, actually. With many processes there are a series of essential post-processing steps prior to the 3D printed part finishing stages.

Today, most resin polymer additive processes still require oven curing. Laser sintering and laser melting additive processes still require powder handling equipment. On an industrial scale this can be twice or even three times the footprint of the additive hardware itself. For metal parts, removal from the build plate is a particularly undesirable part of post-processing, and that’s before even starting on the support structures. Moreover, the PPE equipment for metal powder processes is more essential than ever.

But even consider the new, more accessible plastic powder bed hardware from Formlabs. Launched this month, the Fuse 1 system is an industrial desktop machine that offers, proportionally, the power and material advantages of a powder bed fusion system in a compact, more affordable format than alternatives on the market. There is no mistaking that it is a welcome addition to the market — accessibility is one of the major keys that will continue to drive uptake and adoption. But the eye-catching headline price of this system is $9999 / €12098. Or, if you look at the website, it “starts at” those prices. That’s because, when you look at the technical specifications, the actual printer IS that price, but a “complete SLS solution” requires considerable ancillary equipment. Indeed, the complete solution includes the printer, a post-processing station and intuitive software for setting up and managing prints — and costs twice the “starting” price, at $19,999.

It was actually a conversation about the Fuse 1, in this regard, that triggered this article. And it made me think on how often the excitement of a new launch often overlooks the ancillaries issue.

HP did something similar when they launched too, if you remember — launching the Multi Jet Fusion additive system months ahead of the HP Jet Fusion Processing Station, required to again provide the complete solution. The ancillary equipment required for MJF parts post build easily doubles the footprint of the 3D printer, and it’s not that small to begin with, and it adds considerably to the capital expenditure cost.

So it behoves to look around at some of the other new(er) additive system offerings with ancillaries in mind. And actually it becomes obvious that some vendors are aware of the issues with ancillaries and while they are not talking about them, there is evidence that they are attempting to overcome some of them with their tech development. That said, the familiar need to make a trade-off, depending on application requirements, process requirements and budget etc, remains. As it has always been.

Carbon’s CLIP process, launched originally on the M1 3D printer, is a resin polymer process that produces parts that need to be cleaned and cured. The significantly faster speed of the printing process itself, is offset somewhat by these post-processing steps. However, Carbon’s business model goes some way to mitigate this. First, the company’s business model is subscription based, meaning that the the costs include all the ancillary, post-processing equipment (as well as the software updates). Moreover, the 2nd generation of the technology — in the SpeedCell format, with the M2 printer — includes increasing automation for the cleaning phase. It’s all moving in the right direction.

Desktop Metal  is another company addressing some of the ancillary issues head on. DM launched its new powder metal 3D printers with full visibility of the ancillary furnace that is required post-build. In terms of part removal and support removal, the company has addressed this within its technology development to reduce the pain-staking and time required for these post-processing steps. Another trade off.

And then there is Rize: post-processing, or rather the lack thereof, is one of this company’s USP’s. I gave them a bit of a hard time a couple of months back, for using a tagline of “zero post-processing.” At the time, it was about sensationalized marketing, which I posited was actually making potential users more cynical than they might otherwise be. The point I was making is that amid its competition, the truth (ie minimal post-processing, relatively speaking) will get plenty of attention. It’s actually a very big deal when lined up against its cohorts.

The point here though is not about promoting any one technology over another. There is very little point in doing that these days because process selection is (and should be) application driven. The point is to raise awareness of the ancillaries required to make 3D printers work — at any level. It’s kind of like the insurance equivalent of the small print, so — ask the questions, and if possible, talk to experienced users, that’s always where you’ll find unequivocal truth.

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