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The Changing Face of AM Service Bureaus

Ferdie Bruijnen Vice President, Supply Chain Operations and On Demand Manufacturing 3D Systems Inc.
By Ferdie Bruijnen Vice President, Supply Chain Operations and On Demand Manufacturing, 3D Systems Inc.

Manufacturing Engineering: The service bureaus that grew in lockstep with 3D printing’s early rise in popularity have largely evolved into one-stop shops for a variety of machined, fabricated, plastic-injection molded, and of course 3D-printed parts. Does this trend spell the end of job shops and smaller contract manufacturers?

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A series of newly-installed ProX 800 SLA 3D printers, ready to be put to work at one of 3D Systems’ On Demand facilities.

Ferdie Bruijnen: Not at all. On-demand manufacturing like ours is simply another way to solve problems. Customers come to us looking for everything from replacement parts for their antique cars to a scale model of an espresso machine. These parts might require 3D printing, they might require finishing and painting, machining, or they might require another manufacturing process, but in most situations, they need both. That’s what we offer—a simple solution to many of these everyday problems.

ME: What does 3D Systems On Demand bring to the table in terms of value-added services, design expertise, and manufacturing know-how? In other words, why should someone buy from you?

Bruijnen: Aside from our in-house 3D printing capabilities and a staff of more than 100 application engineers, we also have some CNC, injection molding and urethane casting capabilities. If we don’t have the expertise or capabilities in-house, we partner with a network of external suppliers. So even though we might not do everything ourselves, we are the one-stop shop for customers in terms of functional and rapid prototyping, appearance models, and low- to mid-volume manufacturing services.

ME: 3D Systems has been active in supporting the PPE and ventilator cause. What impact has the pandemic had on your business?

Bruijnen: Like many manufacturing companies, 3D Systems and the On Demand side of the business have been doing some excellent work since the pandemic started. I don’t want to sound promotional, but it’s something that we’re very proud of, even though we haven’t shared many of these stories. We’ve helped out hospitals, first responders, or whoever was in need with 3D-printed parts for ventilators, masks, air tube connectors … it’s a long list, and, unfortunately, remains an ongoing effort.

ME: What are some of the technologies and manufacturing systems you use to stay competitive, especially on the non-additive side of the business?

Bruijnen: As I said, we do have limited non-additive capabilities in house and partner with an external supplier network to make sure we can deliver on customer requirements. We also work closely with our partners to ensure they are following best practices in terms of quality and process control, but whatever technology they use to do so is their business. Speaking for 3D Systems and our On Demand capabilities, I’m excited to say that we are implementing a manufacturing execution system called Link3D with plans to deploy that across the globe.

ME: It seems that additive manufacturing has begun to shed its reputation as a prototyping and low-volume production process and is now used for high-volume work. Do you agree? If so, is it because the equipment has become more capable, or because the design community has begun to realize its potential?

Bruijnen: Although prototyping and low-volume are still the bulk of our business, I do see more companies asking for production quantities. I’m not at liberty to say which one, but I can tell you that we are currently printing serial production components for a well-known automaker, and expect that trend to continue. It’s important to realize this is not merely the result of faster, more accurate equipment, but also the result of huge developments in material properties over the last few years. That, and the engineering community overall is becoming aware of 3D printing’s full value and potential.

ME: Some find online ordering impersonal and lacking the human touch. What do you say to those who prefer the “let’s take this to Bob’s machine shop down the street” approach to outsourcing?

Bruijnen: Some in the manufacturing community are still uncomfortable with the online approach, but I feel that number is shrinking as more people realize they can easily open a dialogue via chat or phone call if they need some design advice. Even after three decades, there are still plenty of question marks with 3D printing. We understand that, which is why we always have people available to answer those questions, even though more of the transactions are performed online.

ME: Considering the rapid pace at which additive manufacturing is evolving, do you find that the industry struggles to keep up with the nuts and bolts of how, when, and why to use it? Is this a concern, and if so, what is the solution?

Bruijnen: As with your previous question, people more familiar with traditional processes like machining and sheet metal fabrication probably struggle more in this regard, but the manufacturing community overall is beginning to really embrace 3D printing. That’s especially true for the younger generation just coming out of universities and trade schools. They grew up with 3D printers and are better equipped to think in those terms.

ME: Do you have any metrics defining how on-demand manufacturing has affected the pace of innovation and product affordability?

Bruijnen: I’ll offer another pandemic example for this one because it fits in extremely well. The spouse of one of my business development people in Europe works the night shift at an area hospital. She mentioned to him during breakfast that they were struggling to get a replacement piece for a broken ventilator. He walked into our factory later that morning, reverse engineered the part, and handed her a new one that afternoon, allowing them to repair the equipment and quite possibly save someone’s life. Granted, not all 3D printing projects are this dramatic, but when you consider that on-demand manufacturing opens this door to practically anyone with Internet access, you can see that it’s going to change everything about how we procure and produce parts.

ME: What do you see as “the next big thing” in manufacturing, additive or otherwise?

Bruijnen: The technology is evolving at such a rapid pace that it’s hard to point to one particular item, but I do see a couple of key opportunities for additive. One of them is traditional tooling, whether it’s assembly jigs, welding and layup fixtures, or what have you. As I said, the materials are getting stronger and more capable every day, so I think there’s enormous potential to save costs and reduce traditional manufacturing lead-times. Other than that, we’ve all read about healthcare applications, where they’re 3D printing patient-specific surgical guides and orthopedic implants. Carry that one step further, and we may soon be printing actual hearts and lungs. More people will realize that 3D printing allows the creation of parts that can’t be produced the traditional way. It does, however, require a different way of thinking: “design the impossible.”

Victrex Launches AM PAEK Filament

The engineering-grade polymers polyetheretherketone (PEEK) and polyaryletherketone (PAEK) are well-known for their excellent chemical, thermal, biocompatible, and mechanical properties, making them a favorite for aerospace, medical, and other applications. Until now, however, their use in 3D printers has been limited due to poor interlayer bonding. A new offering from PEEK and PAEK supplier Victrex aims to change that. According to Victrex distributor INTAMSYS in China, VICTREX AM 200 filament has a higher Z-axis strength and has shown “up to 80 percent strength in the X-Y direction with a better fused filament forming (FFF) printing adaptability” than existing PAEK materials.

Lam Research Corp. and VELO3D Reach Semiconductor Development, Design Agreement

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The VELO3D Sapphire metal 3D printer is capable of producing the fine features and complex structures found in critical semiconductor components.

Metal AM system provider VELO3D, Campbell, Calif., and semiconductor equipment manufacturer Lam Research Corp., Fremont, Calif., announced they will be collaborating on metal alloy development and product design for the semiconductor industry. Lam’s goal is to significantly increase the volume of 3D-printed parts used in its equipment over the next five years. The company has also invested an undisclosed amount in VELO3D.

“Lam Research is leveraging additive manufacturing as a driver of the innovation that enables our customers to build smaller, faster, more powerful, and power-efficient electronic devices for everyday use,” said Kevin Jennings, senior vice president of Global Operations at Lam Research. “This joint development aligns well with Lam’s mission to continuously seek new technologies that push the limits of product design and manufacturing.”

3DPRINTUK Expands Capabilities (Again)

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Close-up of a shot-peened, 3D-printed part made of PEBA 2301 shows fine surface finish and excellent detail.

Service bureau 3DPRINTUK, London, announced several months ago that it had completed its move into a new 10,000 ft2 (929 m2) facility, with two rooms dedicated to post-processing and dyeing. It’s only logical then that it would make another announcement describing the company’s foray into new materials, namely PrimePartST, a polyether block amide (PEBA) thermoplastic elastomer (TPE) designated 2301.

“This is a big day for us,” said 3DPRINTUK CEO and founder Nick Allen. “There were limiting factors in our previous facility that prevented us from adding new materials. Now with our new factory and with our in-house developed order management system, we look to introduce a number of new offerings, with PEBA being the first of these.”

PEBA 2301 exhibits flexible, rubber-like characteristics similar to TPU and other TPEs, he explained, but is slightly harder and stronger. It also demonstrates good chemical resistance, water resistance, and long-term stability, with excellent detail resolution possible and rubber-like fatigue behavior. The material comes in matte white, but PEBA parts can be dyed if the natural finish is not suitable for any application. It also has a higher melting point than most resin-based elastomers and is thus ideally suited to rugged end-use applications. These include air ducts, encapsulation components, handles, medical equipment, seals and gaskets, and sports equipment and footwear.

Sintavia Acquires Additional Electron Beam Printer from GE Additive

Tier One metal additive manufacturer Sintavia LLC, Hollywood, Fla., has acquired its third electron beam printer—an Arcam Q20+ electron beam printer from GE Additive—and its 19th industrial metal printer overall. “Over the past several years, we have worked to qualify the Q20+ for aerospace manufacturing and now have several aerostructure product lines that depend on this technology,” said Sintavia CEO Brian Neff. “Electron beam printing is an excellent option for complex titanium aerospace components, and this business line will continue to grow for us.”

Development Collaboration Bears Fruits

Honeywell and SLM Solutions have achieved success in the qualification of parts 3D-printed with 60 and 90-µm layer thicknesses using aluminum alloy F357, a beryllium-free version of AlSi7Mg0.6 (A357). The work, first announced in 2019, aims to reduce manufacturing times and costs to produce 3D printed aircraft components that meet the high standards of the aerospace industry.

The alloy is not only lightweight but also offers significantly better corrosion resistance and mechanical properties in comparison to conventional aluminum alloys. It has high weldability and excellent suitability for post-processing machining and anodizing. This combination of properties makes F357 well-suited for thin walled and complex structures in the aerospace or automotive industries, among others.

Essentium and Hephzibah Joining Forces

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The team from Essentium distributor Hephzibah, South Korea, posing in front of an Essentium 3D printer.

College Station, Texas-based industrial additive manufacturing (AM) solution provider Essentium Inc. has announced a partnership with South Korean 3D printing equipment distributor Hephzibah. According to the press release, manufacturing firms in South Korea recognize that adding 3D printing to their factory floors could save them billions in production costs. They face significant obstacles to using 3D printing for large-scale production, however, such as the strength of parts, the speed and scale of production, and adverse economic considerations.

The Essentium and Hephzibah partnership aims to address these obstacles by delivering AM solutions able to produce parts with the strength, speed, scale, and economics associated with plastic injection-molding.

Relativity 3D Printing Rocket Parts from Sustainable Materials

Satellite launch service provider Relativity Space, said to have “the world’s first autonomous rocket factory,” together with advanced material developer and manufacturer 6K, have announced a strategic partnership intended to create a closed-loop supply chain where certified scrap materials produced at Relativity are turned into powder by 6K, which can then be reprinted by Relativity. The two companies will also explore new materials created specifically for rocket manufacturing and space travel.

“Relativity is completely re-imagining the aerospace supply chain by creating an autonomous robotic factory that can additively manufacture a rocket in 60 days,” said Relativity CEO Tim Ellis. “This partnership with 6K will add another important element to our very unique approach: the ability to reuse materials. We are looking forward to working with them to add this sustainability to our supply chain, while ensuring closed loop traceability.”

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