Build a factory floor that can do it all

April 22, 2022
The four main components for a complete additive manufacturing solution are hardware, materials, software, and downstream processes.

As 3D printing technology continues its maturation beyond prototyping to true, production-grade additive manufacturing (AM), it raises questions for manufacturers seeking to benefit from what this technology has to offer. AM makes it possible to produce complex, function-driven parts more cost-effectively than ever and realize dramatic impacts such as reduced weight for increased system efficiency, fewer assembly operations for improved quality and reliability, and the ability to lower production volumes or produce parts on-demand for better supply chain management and inventory control. While there are many resources available to define the most impactful use cases for AM, less information is available about how to successfully integrate it into an existing workflow.

It is important to clarify that adopting AM does not imply a complete transition. In the majority of cases, the most successful implementation of AM will be one in which an existing workflow incorporates additive manufacturing as a specialized tool within a broader toolbox. Despite the relative novelty of AM for production, the components involved in a complete AM solution and how it integrates in the production setting is reasonably intuitive. The four main components are hardware, materials, software, and downstream processes.

Industrial-scale 3D-printing hardware

To take advantage of AM for production, 3D-printing hardware and materials must be engineered with production in mind. This means a system built for high throughput, high repeatability, and as much operational efficiency as possible to maximize cost-effectiveness. It is also difficult to talk about production-grade equipment if it is not paired with production-grade materials and a production-oriented mechanism for material delivery. Different 3D-printing technologies work in different ways, but each can be optimized to deliver high speed and consistency with materials that meet production specifications.

For a sense of what this looks like in practice, let’s take a look at the architecture and workflow of the SLS 380 3D printer. As a selective laser sintering (SLS) printer, the SLS 380 is a powder-based system that uses a high-powered laser to fuse material layers into a final part. After one layer is scanned, the print platform lowers and is recoated with loose powder in preparation for the subsequent layer. This is typical to all SLS equipment, but the SLS 380 incorporates additional features that enable it to achieve high part quality and consistency for production-level repeatability.

The SLS 380 collects thermal data throughout the build process and can be tuned based on real-time conditions to maintain temperature stasis for every part build-layer. It achieves this by using a water-cooled laser and a custom-developed algorithm that manages eight separately calibrated heaters to provide real-time monitoring and control of the thermal uniformity within the build chamber. This is paired with a high-resolution integrated infrared (IR) camera that captures more than 100,000 thermal data samples per second from within the build chamber, which makes it possible to distinguish hot sintered regions from dry powder. This capability is significant in production settings because consistent thermal uniformity across parts and machines is the key to repeatability, and the SLS 380 helps manufacturers deliver high yields of dimensionally stable parts with better mechanical performance and fewer human interventions for lower overall operating costs than typical SLS solutions.

Production-grade materials for long-term use

3D-printing material capability is a major topic for transitioning AM to production settings. Historically, performance and longevity limitations of 3D-printing materials have relegated the technology to prototyping. But new advancements are changing the landscape, in material properties and how materials are delivered and managed. After all, for 3D printing to be compatible with the factory floor, it cannot rely on manual material changeovers, and for production to be successful, the parts need to last and perform (see figure).

Using high-performance nylon thermoplastic materials offers superior surface finish out-of-the-printer and higher isotropic strength compared to alternatives on the market, and include composite and fiber-reinforced options for added durability and versatility across various industries.

Material delivery and handling are also important for transitioning AM to the industrial setting and must be considered to establish a complete production-ready workflow.

Opportunities for downstream automation

For additive manufacturing to be factory-ready, it needs to integrate beyond the printing process. This means materials need to be compatible with traditional post-processing methods and signals the importance of automation in the post-processing phase as well including de-powdering and chemical vapor smoothing.

Having such a workflow allows manufacturers to clean and smooth parts in batches to optimize part quality and mechanical performance while reducing lead time, lowering manufacturing costs, and enabling factory scalability. For industrial-scale AM production, an integrated post-processing component is key to achieving the necessary throughput, consistency, and performance.

Software that ties the process together

It could be argued that the last piece of the puzzle is also the first, and it’s software. Software not only drives printers, but is necessary to connect the workflow and ensure quality outcomes for both the parts and the process. The SLS 380 uses 3D Sprint, an advanced, single-interface software by Oqton for file preparation, editing, printing, and management. 3D Sprint is intended for production environments and offers time-saving workflows to maximize printer capacity and build volume utilization without the need for additional third-party software. Features such as smart geometry processing and powerful slicing technology eliminate geometry processing artifacts, and the software also allows for accurate estimations of print time and optimizes material levels and usage both before and during the print operation.

Having access to tools like Oqton’s AI-powered, agnostic Manufacturing OS provides a connected additive workflow across and beyond the production floor with remote monitoring and insightful live dashboards. Combining AI with machine learning, the Oqton Manufacturing OS optimizes efficient machine utilization by enabling users to manage their machines, materials, and production orders. With the right software solution, it is possible to ensure true-to-CAD parts, as well as streamline your workflow and increase your efficiency and effectiveness through optimized data management.

Gaining awareness of what makes a complete AM solution is only the first step. The next is finding an experienced and knowledgeable resource who has successfully traveled down this path and can reduce your trial and error through their learnings.  The infrastructure and information necessary to integrate AM on the factory floor has never been more comprehensive and robust.

About the Author

Phillip Conner | SLS Platform Manager, 3D Systems

Phillip Conner is the SLS platform manager at 3D Systems (Rock Hill, SC).

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