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Materials Trek

Kip Hanson
By Kip Hanson Contributing Editor, SME Media
Andrew Graves inspects a Covestro PBT part after post-processing with AMT’s PostPro vapor-smoothing process. (Provided by Andrew Graves – Covestro Additive Manufacturing)

The story of 3D Systems founder Chuck Hull and his invention of a novel manufacturing technology that has since spawned a $13 billion industry is the stuff of legend. So is that of Scott Crump, who developed fused deposition modeling (FDM) at his kitchen table just a few years after Hull opened his first factory in Valencia, California. SME Additive Community Advisor Andrew Graves knows both of these 3D printing pioneers well, and quite a few others besides.

Three years after earning his bachelor’s degree in electronic engineering at the University of Brighton in East Sussex, this U.K. native and enthusiastic supporter of all things additive went on the job interview that changed his life. Said Graves, “The guy started talking about how you could print things in three dimensions, and then he showed me some parts and a couple videos of the process, and I was thinking, ‘Wow. I want this job.’ It really blew my mind.”

That was in 1990, and needless to say, Graves got the job. His new title? The “technical projects specialist” for what would soon become known as 3D Systems U.K. At that time, he said, the company relied on a distributor to sell and service its equipment in the United Kingdom—by the end of that first year, he and 3D Systems’ only other U.K. employee were told to set up a new division. There were two SLA machines in the entire country. 

Covestro’s Somos PerFORM composite stereolithography material is used to create injection molding inserts for low-volume production applications. (Provided by Covestro Additive Manufacturing)

“We sold the first SLA 500 in Europe to Rover,” he said. “Six years later, I received an offer to work at the head office in Valencia. It allowed me to work more closely with the development and software people, which was a great experience, and I soon got involved in the VIPER Si2 and the SLA 7000 and some of the other new technologies. And then when they bought DTM Corp., I got involved in powder sintering as well.”

Thirteen years after it began, however, Graves’ employment with 3D Systems abruptly ended after he was caught in a series of company-wide layoffs. He went back to the U.K. and spent a few months 3D printing parts for his friend Pat Warner’s Formula One team before starting his next venture—an AM equipment maintenance and support company named Total C S Team Inc., which he launched with two of his ex-colleagues from 3D Systems. Graves was America-bound once more. “It was fun to just build parts every day, but California had become my home by then,” he said.

California Dreaming

Over the next seven years, the Total C S Team developed and installed upgrades for 3D Systems equipment, including solid-state lasers and a patented recoater blade system for the large number of SLA 500 machines in use at the time. But when his erstwhile employer began to turn the screws on third-party maintenance companies, the small firm dissolved and Graves went to work at the well-known service bureau Solid Concepts, then under the leadership of another former 3D Systems employee, Joe Allison.

“That was another great job,” Graves said. “It wasn’t more than a few months before Stratasys acquired Solid Concepts and we became Stratasys Direct Manufacturing, but regardless, I had a lot of fun there. We had 26 SLA machines in one room, and I spent most of my time looking for ways to improve their throughput and part quality. I got to play with a beta unit of a Stratasys J750, so learned a lot about jetting, and I also did some quality control work on their FDM machines. It was a great experience.”

During his five years there, he had regular interaction with representatives of material provider DSM, the developers of Somos and other 3D printing resins. Eventually, Graves’ extensive industry knowledge brought him another job opportunity, one that would also take him back to his native land. “This was in the early days of DLP printers [digital light processing] and they had a number of machine builders asking for help with resins and process development,” he said. “So they created a new position and asked me to take it on. That’s how I became an equipment partnership manager for DSM Additive Manufacturing, initially still in California but eventually back here in the U.K.”

Premium Polymers

Graves still holds that position today, but as things so often go in the AM industry, DSM’s Resins and Functional Materials business unit was recently acquired by polymers giant Covestro AG of Leverkusen, Germany. He’s now part of an organization that spans 33 worldwide locations and boasts 16,500 employees. And surprisingly, his job has less to do with materials than one might think.

A functional prototype of an automotive fusebox 3D printed with Covestro PBT powder on a Farsoon LS (laser sintering) printer. (Provided by Covestro Additive Manufacturing)

“We’re a materials company, of course, but if we’re going to offer additive manufacturers a total solution—an ecosystem, if you will—then we need to work with 3D printer builders, software developers, post-processing equipment suppliers, and perhaps even other materials providers,” Graves said. “To that end, there’s three of us that make up what’s called the partnership team. And that’s what we do—develop partnerships that will make our customers more successful.”

His mission, he explained, is one that any Star Trek fan will be familiar with: To seek out new systems and new technologies—to boldly go where no materials manufacturer has gone before. It’s fertile ground. Graves noted that there’s room for improvements across the industry, whether it’s in design for additive manufacturing (DfAM), materials technology, or confidence in the AM process.

“Too many people in this industry don’t have a thorough understanding of the whole designing for additive concept,” he said. “That’s much of the reason why I’ve begun working with the Design for AM NETWORK in the U.K. that includes a few universities that are trying to spread the word about this and other AM topics. There’s still a lot of education needed.”

Call to Open

As noted just now, there’s work to be done on materials as well. Graves said too many designers get sidetracked into thinking they need a specific grade of polymer—ABS, for example, or polycarbonate—when what they really need is a material with equivalent properties. Explaining this fine distinction falls to him and those on his team, as does the need to promote proper material testing.

“It’s critical that the industry adopts standardized methods that expose 3D-printed polymers to the full spectrum of sunlight, high heat, extreme cold, and varying levels of humidity, and do so in an accelerated fashion,” said Graves. “Without that, you’re not only jeopardizing part quality, but eliminating the rapid development benefits of 3D printing.”

Graves also feels the industry would be better served by “open” systems that accept non-proprietary materials. As a polymer supplier, he admits to some bias in this respect, but offers an analogy to support his argument. “When you buy a plastic injection molding machine or a CNC machining center, you’re not limited to materials from the companies making that equipment. Why should 3D printing be any different? Another argument is that OEMs do not want single-source materials, so if we want AM to be adopted as industrial technology, it will have to become open. Making it so will create additional possibilities for additive manufacturing as a whole.”

All the World’s a Stage

When asked if he misses the U.S., Graves’ answer was surprising. “I hate the cold, so I definitely enjoyed the amazing California weather, but I do feel more at home here,” he said. “I love the pubs and the laughter and the change of seasons, winter notwithstanding. And, of course, my family is here. Still, I got a chance to travel all over the States and have seen more of it than most visitors ever will, so I feel very fortunate.”

A Somos PerFORM Reflect tool, used by race teams to produce complex carbon fiber production tubing. (Provided by Richard Brady – Covestro Additive Manufacturing)

Being back home means Graves will also have the opportunity to practice his favorite pastime in front of British audiences. That’s because Graves is a member of SAG-AFTRA (Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists) and the Actor’s Equity Association, a vocation he’s pursued almost as long as he’s been musing about additive manufacturing. Whether it’s assuming one of his many Shakespearean acting roles, strumming a ukulele in the opening scene of Harry Potter and The Ten Years Later, or playing the first officer aboard the doomed Titanic, Graves loves the stage.

Thespian pursuits aside, Graves loves to talk about 3D printing. Graves has been involved with AMUG, the Additive Manufacturing Users Group, for years, and in 2015 received the organization’s DINO award in the presence of none other than his old boss, Chuck Hull. During this time, he got to know Zach Simkin, president of the AM data firm Senvol and past chair of SME’s Additive Manufacturing Advisory board.

“Zach approached me one day and said, ‘Hey, Andrew, we’re looking for new advisors. You give back a lot to the community. You like to do presentations. You share your knowledge with others and have a tremendous amount of industry experience. I think you’d be a great fit.’ So I put my name forward and joined the group. That was two years ago, and I’ve enjoyed every part of it. If someone were to ask me, ‘What subject could you talk for hours about without stopping?’ the answer should be pretty obvious by now. Working with the advisors’ group is just one more way of promoting an industry that I’m very passionate about. I’m happy to do it.”

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