Had IMTS 2020 taken place as scheduled, it would have been clear that making parts as quickly and cost-effectively as possible remains as the primary goal in manufacturing. And nowhere is this more evident than in the additive manufacturing (AM) market, where equipment and software suppliers continue to improve their wares.
One such company is Stratasys, where Justin McCurnin explained how the company built a “COVID Coalition.”
Using its new cloud-based GrabCAD Shop software, Stratasys coordinated the manufacturing and delivery of face shield components from hundreds of volunteer 3D printing firms, assembled those components in-house and distributed the completed personal protective equipment to healthcare facilities.
“If we’d tried to accomplish that using plastic injection molding, it might have taken a month or longer to ramp up,” he said. “Thanks to AM, we were printing shields within an hour of receiving the file.”
HP launched a similar effort. Tim Weber said his customers have produced more than 1.5 million 3D-printed parts to help front-line healthcare workers. Among these suppliers are large U.S.-based firms like SmileDirectClub and Superfeet, as well as dozens of smaller firms. Outside the U.S., HP partners in Canada produced 540,000 face shields, while production partner Weerg 3D-printed critical valves for respiratory masks donated to hospitals and healthcare workers throughout Italy.
And Carbon’s Dara Treseder discussed how the digital manufacturing company developed and produced PPE for healthcare responders by designing an open-source face shield. Within a week, several of Carbon’s customers were printing the shields, and within six weeks, the Carbon production ecosystem had delivered more than 270,000 of them to healthcare responders on the front lines of the COVID-19 battle.
Leveraging the disruptor
Additive manufacturing has long been seen as a disruptor, but it took a pandemic to illustrate one of 3D printing’s more functional attributes—the ability it gives users to adapt and quickly shift directions. This puts AM squarely in the driver’s seat as a bridge technology in times of crisis, allowing manufacturers to get parts out quickly until less nimble processes such as plastic injection molding and even machining can be ramped up to full-scale production.
“Additive manufacturing helps meet critical production needs by avoiding the problems that traditional supply chains experience due to regional shutdowns and global transportation delays,” Treseder said. “Instead of having replacement parts stored in a warehouse, for example, some customers are storing digital designs for parts in the cloud. When and if disruptions do occur, those parts can easily be manufactured at whatever facilities remain operational. Going forward, it will be critical to have a greater focus on this type of supply chain adaptability.”
Michael Papish of Markforged agreed. “The last few months have reinforced the stark reality that supply chains can be disrupted, both on the supply and demand sides,” he said. “Additive gives manufacturers a very agile way of solving these situations. For instance, we’ve partnered with a leading medical device manufacturer to manufacture millions of rayon-tipped nasal swabs in very short order. Speed like this isn’t possible with traditional manufacturing.”
But what about IMTS?
These successes are but a small sampling of the work that these and other AM providers have done to combat the global pandemic. But this story isn’t about the industry’s response to COVID-19, it’s about the technological advancements that the planners of the International Manufacturing Technology Show chose to include (prior to the show’s virus-related cancellation).
Some of these come from 3D Systems. Mark Cook pointed to the company’s increased emphasis on serial production, much of which centers around the DMP Factory 500 Concept. First introduced at IMTS 2018, the system contains modules for printing, powder management, and other discrete functions, and can be configured to include CNC milling and EDM equipment from GF Machining Solutions. Cook said the result is a workflow-oriented, end-to-end manufacturing solution.
“As awareness has grown and companies have come to recognize the value proposition of additive, they’re starting to develop more applications for it, and now want to put additive into their factories,” he said. “At the same time, they want to minimize part handling and streamline the production process as much as possible. By addressing the post-processing needs of metal additive—the drilling and tapping and finish machining that’s typically required and removal of the part from the build plate—that’s exactly what we’ve accomplished with the DMP Factory 500.”
As any AM person knows, however, there’s more to the 3D printing equation than hardware: there’s also part design, build prep and process monitoring, all of which 3D Systems’ Radhika Krishnan can speak to.
“Time and time again, we see that there are very few additive manufacturing problems that can’t be solved with software,” she said. “Whether it’s nesting, support generation, mechanical analyses, build simulation, or inspection, software can make a very distinct difference in the outcome. And to meet this need, we’ve developed tools such as 3DXpert, 3D Connect, and Geomagic Control X, all of which (would have been) on display at IMTS.”
Kevin Brigden of Renishaw also commented on software’s importance during the build process, suggesting that the company’s QuantAM and InfiniAM products (each with various IMTS-timeframe refinements) address these needs. But he also said Renishaw has been working with a host of software partners—Altair, nTopology, and Ansys, to name a few—to improve the industry’s handling of part geometry and the CLI-block (common layer interface) format, something that “will be interesting to show customers” who would have attended IMTS.
He had also planned to demonstrate Renishaw Central, an Industry 4.0-oriented tool that ties together Renishaw’s AM process monitoring with its metrology products. “This means we’ll be able to integrate our machine probing and Equator gaging with various machine tools, including our 3D printers, providing customers with a holistic manufacturing solution,” Brigden said.
Mark Kirby was also looking forward to showing off Renishaw products, the newest of which is the 500E, “a flexible material machine aimed at entry-level adopters, as well as customers looking for a research and development platform that can also be used to complement their 500Q four-laser production platform.”
The 500E and 500Q use the same optical technology, have the same process monitoring capabilities, and offer the same build dimensions. So why have two nearly identical machines, the primary difference being the number of lasers?
“We’re trying to simplify matters for people just getting into the technology by providing a lower cost machine that is completely interoperable with our existing four-laser platform,” Kirby said.
Suppliers of additive equipment have suffered along with the rest of the manufacturing community during the pandemic. And yet, burdens often bring positive results, as David Leigh of EOS North America can attest.
“COVID-19 has impacted us just like everybody else,” he said. “It’s slowed the launch of some products and services, and has shown some weaknesses in our global supply chain. From that experience, however, we’ve realized even more the importance of distributed manufacturing and services, so have begun to expand our capabilities in remote monitoring, reporting, and even installation. All of that is supported by our EOS Connect and EOS Service software modules, both of which we rolled out in May, but we’re also developing augmented and virtual reality tools for machine diagnoses and training purposes.”
Aside from these and other enhancements to the EOS software suite, several new machines are coming online.
EOS is launching its M300, a printer “designed for serial production, with a number of automation features and up to four lasers.” The P450 is intended as a development platform, geared for “mid-temperature” materials like nylon and a machine that will “give users a high degree of flexibility to develop proprietary materials and applications.”
“We’re working hard on automation as well,” Leigh said. “I’m not at liberty to discuss everything, but think about all the different process steps needed to complete any 3D print job. You have to load the machine with powder. There’s setting up of the build plate, and removal of the part afterward. Add to that all the different software-related activities—build simulation, for example. If we can automate all those activities, everything will just be more efficient, and better able to handle the serial production that everyone is moving toward.”
Michael Papish of Markforged related another interesting side effect of the pandemic.
“Right now, we have 10,000 plus printers out in the field and we have insight at a macro level to see what each one is doing, things like build speeds, completion rate, material consumption, and so on,” he said. “It’s been fascinating over the last few months to watch printer activity across different countries as our customers responded to the situation. But what’s more important about all this is the data we’re able to collect, and use to not only improve our products but to help our customers improve theirs. It’s been a great example of the power behind Industry 4.0 and the IoT. Just imagine where we’ll be in another five years.”
The rest of the story (almost)
Had IMTS taken place, Tim Weber said that HP would have showcased its portfolio of industrial-grade 3D printing solutions for the mass production of metal and plastics parts. One new piece of this portfolio is a “first of its kind” polypropylene (PP) material, announced in early June—in a virtual event hosted by Smart Manufacturing.
“The new High Reusability PP was developed as part of the strategic alliance with BASF 3D Printing Solutions,” he said. “It is qualified for HP’s production-grade 3D printing systems, is a highly recyclable, durable, and chemical-resistant material, and is ideal for customers in the automotive, consumer, industrial, and medical sectors.”
First announced in May, Stratasys planned to demonstrate its new J55 3D printer. Said to be office-friendly, the J55 offers nearly 500,000 Pantone-validated color combinations, as well as the ability to generate surface textures mimicking fabric, wood, leather and more. A range of polymers is available, including VeroVivid and VeroClear, DraftGrey, and Agilus30 flexible materials. The printer is also said to be accurate within +/-100μ (+/- 0.0039”), with layer thicknesses down to 18μ (0.0007 in.).
Carbon wasn’t planning to exhibit at IMTS but does plan on speaking about its latest developments surrounding the Carbon M2 printer and Digital Light Synthesis technology. With it, manufacturers can design, develop, and scale better-performing products faster than with traditional processes, said Dara Treseder.
One example is Specialized Bicycles’ S-Works Power Saddle, developed “in half the time” and laying claim to the first digitally printed bike seat. “Using Carbon, they produced and tested 80 prototypes and completed their development work in just 10 months,” she said.