Plural AM Leverages Low-Cost Industrial Systems for Additive Manufacturing in the U.S.
Michael Molitch-Hou posted on April 28, 2016 |
Plural AM believes that 3ntr 3D printers can provide industrial-grade production at a low price.

Stratasys invented fused deposition modeling (FDM) in 1989, establishing itself as a leader in the field with its brand of plastic extrusion. After the expiration of key patents in 2009, however, a new generation of systems exploded onto the scene, resulting in two distinct categories of extrusion-style 3D printers on the market: high-priced industrial systems from Stratasys on the one hand and low-cost hobby machines from new startup companies on the other. For the most part, there is a gulf between those two ends of the spectrum, with professional FDM 3D printers remaining cost-prohibitive for small to medium-sized firms and most entry-level machines unable to handle industrial-grade materials and applications.


Filling the Niche

As a former reseller for CAD software giants Siemens PLM and Dassault Systèmes and their powerful NX, Solid Edge, CATIA and SOLIDWORKSsuites, Tom McKasson, now co-founder and CEO of Plural Additive Manufacturing (AM), has closely followed the rapid prototyping/3D printing industry since its inception. McKasson also represented both of the industry-leading rapid prototyping companies (Stratasys and 3D Systems) at various times. Over time, McKasson began running into issues with clients who were wondering if they could print end-use parts with their printers. Cost-per-part case studies proved that it would not be feasible based on the cost of materials.

Plural AM is a Portland-based startup dedicated to selling 3ntr 3D printers and providing additive manufacturing expertise and services. (Image courtesy of Plural AM.)
Plural AM is a Portland-based startup dedicated to selling 3ntr 3D printers and providing additive manufacturing expertise and services. (Image courtesy of Plural AM.)

In 2014, McKasson and his partner Ed Israel, now president and co-founder of Plural AM, began a journey to fill the niche between high-end industrial additive manufacturing systems and hobby-style desktop 3D printers. Despite the seemingly countless desktop systems on the market, there proved to be a lack of affordable 3D printers capable of working with the industrial thermoplastics that most manufacturing businesses would require.

McKasson explained, “It was clear that we had all of the technological pieces we needed to implement additive manufacturing for low- and medium-volume plastic parts, but it was cost-prohibitive. So, we wanted to see what we could do about that. We spent a good part of the past two years researching if a.) we were going to design and build our own printer or b.) we could find one somewhere in the world that met all of our requirements. As you probably know, to design and build a printer that would truly be an industrial quality, 24/7 kind of machine is an undertaking. It requires about two years and about $3 million worth of product development.”

Years earlier, on the other side of the globe, a 50-year-old manufacturing company was having the same issue. They needed spare parts for their very old equipment and looked for a 3D printing system that could cost justifiably create the parts. They could not find one. To meet their needs,CEO Davide Ardizzoia realized that they’d need to develop their own printer. Relying on their knowledge of CNC machines, thermoforming, laser cutting and plasticization, Ardizzoia created their first 3D printer. After using the system in their own workflow, they turned to manufacturing the 3D printer for more widespread use and it has gone through significant generational upgrades over the last four years. This resulted in a 3D-printing spin-off company called 3ntr, which Ardizzoia now oversees. Their printer is now being sold all over Europe into companies big and small, including companies like Airbus.

3ntr 3D printers are produced at 3ntr’s facilities in Ollegio, Italy. (Image courtesy of Plural AM/3ntr.)
3ntr 3D printers are produced at 3ntr’s facilities in Ollegio, Italy. (Image courtesy of Plural AM/3ntr.)

“We literally searched the world trying to find a printer that could, in a 24/7 environment, accurately and repeatedly build parts to manufacturing tolerances. We were on the verge of making the commitment to [build our own 3D printer], when we finally discovered Davide in Italy and 3ntr,” McKasson continued. The business partners began putting 3ntr’s machines through their paces and realized they met or exceeded the performance of industry-leading products, but without the machine and materials price tags. “We’re holding tolerances that are as good or better than existing industrial machines and we believe our surface finishes, in many cases, are better as well,” said McKasson.


From 3D Printing to Additive Manufacturing

McKasson and Israel founded Plural AM with the principal that rapid prototyping technology does not need to be isolated to—well—rapid prototyping. Though the terms are often used interchangeably in the industry, the two heads of Plural AM don’t see “additive manufacturing” and “3D printing” as being the same thing.

“We’re kind of putting a line in the sand and saying, ‘No, wait a minute. There’s 3D printing and there’s additive manufacturing, of which 3D printing is a core part.’ But we see additive manufacturing as a lean manufacturing process,” Israel explained. “A company might decide to bring in a 3D printer to start 3D printing parts and that’s all they’re using it for. Instead, however, they can look at how it can change the way the company does business, their time-to-market, how they create new designs, manage inventory, control cash flow, produce spare parts—they start looking at the whole picture.”

Three extruders come standard on both the 3ntr A2 and A4 series. (Image courtesy of Plural AM/3ntr.)
Three extruders come standard on both the 3ntr A2 and A4 series. (Image courtesy of Plural AM/3ntr.)
 3D printing, in Israel’s mind, is a production tool that can be utilized for the larger business model of AM, with the systems from 3ntr capable of, according to Plural AM, handling a business’s AM needs at costs significantly below those of traditional industrial systems. While most plastic extrusion systems rely on forced air cooling, through the use of a fan or similar setup, 3ntr’s A2v2 and A4v3 machines are among the very few on the market to use a liquid cooled hot end. Equipped with three all-metal extruders, the A2 (600 x 400 x 500 mm/24.4 x 13.7 x 19.2 in build volume) and the A4 (305x205x210 mm/11.8 x 7.9 x 7.5 in build volume) series are capable of reaching temperatures as high as 410 °C, allowing them to use a variety of industrial materials on the market, but the liquid cooling mechanism gives precise control over the extrusion temperature.
A liquid cooling mechanism allows for precise control over the all-metal hot ends of the 3ntr machines. (Image courtesy of Plural AM/3ntr.)
A liquid cooling mechanism allows for precise control over the all-metal hot ends of the 3ntr machines. (Image courtesy of Plural AM/3ntr.)

At the same time, the powder-coated steel enclosure allows for a stable ambient temperature within the build chamber. Fortunately, although the 3ntr systems can process powerful thermoplastics, they also feature HEPA filtration to prevent particles and odors from affecting the surrounding environment. The Plural AM team has also added features typically associated with a work environment to the machines, such as a wireless 3D print server and software for WiFi control. The A4 has a webcam included as standard on all machines, allowing for the ability to remotely monitor the printer from behind a company’s firewall. Plural AM can also set up remote offsite viewing, in collaboration with a company’s IT team.

All of this combined results in a price tag of $40,000 for the A4v3 and $20,000 for the A2v2. The machines are field upgradeable in terms of firmware and hardware so that, as new features are developed, the Plural AM team can help a business make the necessary changes to their printers. Customer support provided by Plural AM is also included in the package.

Currently, the 3ntr machines are capable of 3D printing with materials such as polycarbonate (PC), high-impact polystyrene, self-lubricating plastics, carbon composites, and soluble support for 3D printing complex parts in addition to a variety of other industrial filaments. McKasson and Israel, however, say that they have partnered with taulman 3D, known for its industrial polymer filaments, to produce even more. They also hope to see the 3ntr printers fabricating with the popular Polyetherimide (PEEK) thermoplastic, ULTEM, in the future. Additionally, McKasson tells me that 3ntr has new machines in the works that should be introduced into the market, possibly by next year.

All of these materials are produced at a price point that PluralAM suggests undercuts existing industry equivalents significantly, which Plural AM believes will allow this technology to evolve from a purely prototyping process to something capable of additive manufacturing for any business looking to quickly and affordably produce parts on demand. To kick-start that evolution, Plural AM is bringing 3ntr’s machines to North America, where Plural will perform both AM services and represent the firm in a distribution capacity.

To explore whether or not 3ntr’s additive manufacturing technology can serve your business, visit the Plural AM website here.

Plural AM has sponsored this post. They have no editorial input. All opinions are mine. —Michael Molitch-Hou

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