The metal 3D-printed products displayed by 3D printer manufacturers at various recent trade shows are no doubt impressive for their complex shapes and refined detail, but metal 3D printing is far from perfect, suffering from quality control and productivity issues. One company out of the Netherlands, Additive Industries, jumped into the 3D printing space, looking to take on every issue that they could find within the increasingly popular technology of powder bed metal 3D printing.
The MetalFAB1 metal 3D printing platform from Additive Industries. (Image courtesy of Additive Industries.)
With the MetalFAB1 platform, the firm seems to have addressed many of these issues with a metal 3D printer capable of 10 times the productivity of other mid-range laser-based powder bed systems by replacing typically labor-intensive operations with automated parallel operations and a great deal of in-process monitoring. At the RAPID 2016 conference, Additive Industries CEO Daan Kersten spoke to the unique design of the MetalFAB1, as well as to Additive Industries' position in the larger 3D printing industry.
3D Printing’s Newcomers
Kersten began by pointing out that Additive Industries, established in 2012, is novel in the 3D printing space. The company's founders are not process experts but machine experts who came from the Netherlands’ equipment manufacturing capital, Eindhoven. With extensive experience in producing high-tech equipment such as lithography machines, electron beam microscopes and medical scanning systems, Kersten and his partners saw that additive manufacturing had the potential to disrupt the high- tech equipment industry.
For that reason, the CEO originally planned to implement 3D printing for the production of components for high- tech equipment. However, when he evaluated the existing metal 3D printing systems, “We came to the conclusion that it is not yet a series production technology. It was nice for prototyping, but the machines were not series production machines. That triggered our entrance into the industry, and we thought that there is room for a new player with industry-grade machines.”
As outsiders, Additive Industries approached the problems of metal 3D printing with a fresh perspective. “We didn’t begin working with the existing technology,” Kersten explained. “What we did is, we interviewed lots of experienced users and asked them, ‘If you could start over with a blank sheet of paper, what kind of machine would you like?’ They all said the same thing to us, ‘We want a machine that will combine excellent reproducibility with very competitive productivity and flexibility.’”
Kersten points out that the firm did not want to make a machine that was an incremental improvement over other metal 3D printers, but rather was 10 times better. “We specified in detail what that means. We developed an architecture, designed the machine, built it, tested it, made improvements, and built it over again. Now, we have the MetalFAB1.”
As with most powder bed metal 3D printing technologies, engineers are often forced to design a part for the machine being used. This means implementing a trial-and-error approach; first, create the CAD model, then print it on a given system, and, if any faults are discovered with the design, redesign it. Along the way, the parameters of the machine are also adjusted to optimize the end quality until the part is perfect.
Given the cost of the machine, its materials, and the operator’s salary, this empirical process is clearly not ideal. Currently, machine manufacturers are developing their own solutions to the issue of quality control, including in-process monitoring platforms and general upgrades in the stability of the machines. Additive Industries, on the other hand, was able to jump right into the 3D printing space with quality control top of mind.
“It starts with a good thermal design,” Kersten explained. “We have analyzed what happens when you heat up the build chamber. When you start your build process, the machine is at room temperature, but when you add energy to the build and are melting the power, the temperature grows and grows and grows. The build chamber, which is all metal, will deform, so the design is made in a way that, if there is deformation, it will happen symmetrically. What we also did is that we introduced a system that will allow you to do continuous calibration so that we always know where the laser is over the course of a build job. That way we know exactly what we’re printing, and that it is a reproducible process.”
The company has integrated a wide range of sensors into the MetalFAB1 to obtain as much data as possible from the printing process. “We monitor everything that is relevant,” he elaborated. “We’ve added a lot of sensors to the machine. We did not know exactly what sensors we would really need in the future to do analysis, part quality, or predict process drift. So we introduced as many sensors as we could. With that data, we can further improve the process.”
Also key to the reproducibility of the MetalFAB1 3D printing process are two partnerships. Sigma Labs, a spin-off of Los Alamos National Lab in New Mexico, has commercialized an in-process monitoring tool called PrintRite3D, which combines sensors with software to provide real-time feedback on the 3D printing process in order to analyze the variables that yield an optimal part. About this partnership, Kersten remarked, “We monitor the melt pool through a solution developed by our partner Sigma Labs, because they’re experts in that field. There’s no reason why we would reinvent the wheel if it’s already been invented by someone else.”
Additive Industries has also partnered with 3DSIM, a spin-off of the University of Louisville in Kentucky. 3DSIM has developed an entirely new print preview platform called exaSIM, which takes into account almost every variable imaginable that goes into the 3D printing process and predicts the outcome of the print. These variables include the makeup of a given material, the effect of the energy source on the temperature of the build chamber and the melt pool, the physical interactions between that energy and the material, and much more. The ideal result is the ability to generate an accurate print preview.
“We are also partnering with 3DSIM to integrate their simulation software into our workflow because we’re strong believers that you should simulate a job before you print it. That will increase your yield and, therefore, your productivity,” Kersten said.
Other features to increase repeatability are automatic build plate leveling, ensuring that the print platform is even all around, and an integrated stress relief heat treatment system so that the print doesn’t warp when it is cut from the build plate.
Although the MetalFAB1 system can feature up to four lasers for faster 3D printing, Additive Industries places a heavy emphasis on automation, in order to achieve the 10-fold productivity they wanted. The modular system allows users to begin with a basic machine configuration that has already eliminated all labor-intensive steps, with the option of adding modules for storage, post processing and adding more capacity or materials.
The MetalFAB1 features different modules for automatically implementing different stages in the printing process. (Image courtesy of Additive Industries.)
The MetalFAB1 system can operate independently from start to finish, enabling serial production: from initial powder handling, to build plate calibration, build plate removal, dusting, and heat treatment. This means that, while the machine is cleaning off one finished print in one build chamber (called the Additive Manufacturing or AM Core), it can begin printing a new object in another AM Core. The result is maximum productivity, allowing the machine to pay for itself more quickly.
Kersten continued, “We took out all of the manual labor and all non-value-added steps by parallelizing everything that is not printing, which means that, in our system, in the productivity setup with at least two build chambers, the lasers and optics are always on. Those are the most expensive parts of the machine, so that is where your productivity comes from.”
Additive Industries has already sold all four of its beta machines. It couldn’t have found a better first customer: European aerospace and defense giant Airbus. Kersten described the beta machines as being very close to the series production units; however, with its initial customers, Additive Industries will obtain essential feedback for December 2016, when the firm delivers its first two machines from series production. Illustrating the company’s open approach to manufacturing, the CEO lists the price of the MetalFAB1, in a configuration featuring two lasers and six modules, at €1.8 million (USD$2,007,504).
As exciting as it must have been to secure Airbus as its first customer, Kersten says that the company is equally enthusiastic about all of its customers. The latest customer is GKN Powder Metallurgy, the metal powders division of British multinational automotive and aerospace manufacturer GKN. This customer will be able to help qualify the MetalFAB1 for use in automotive series production. Together with Additive Industries, GKN Powder Metallurgy will apply the printer to compliance in this capacity under the ISO/TS 16949 standard.
Though the company initially sold all its beta machines, Additive Industries decided to reopen their beta program for GKN. Kersten explained that having customers in both the aerospace and automotive markets helps them ensure that the MetalFAB1 meets extremely different criteria. “Having GKN as a customer is very important, because the automotive industry has a completely different aspect that they focus on,” he said. “For them, total cost is crucial, whereas in aerospace, it’s more about having lightweight parts. By having those different types of beta customers in one program, we are very lucky to be able to involve them into the further development of our systems.”
Being newcomers to the 3D printing space is a double-edged sword for Additive Industries, in that the company was able to approach the technology from a unique perspective, but may not have the 3D printing legacy that other manufacturers might. Therefore, in order to jump into the industry with a big splash, it was important for Additive Industries to significantly improve the metal 3D printing technology. When MetalFAB1 goes into serial production and the community provides feedback, we’ll have a better sense of whether that splash was a cannonball or a belly flop. Based on its customer base so far, Additive Industries seems poised for a warm reception.