A First Look at Figure 4, Industrial 3D Printing from 3D Systems
Roopinder Tara posted on September 20, 2016 |
ENGINEERING.com gets a first look at the Figure 4 industrial 3D printing system from 3D Systems at I...

As the industrial 3D printing market shifts into fifth gear, all of the major 3D printer manufacturers are unveiling new systems best fitted for end part production. 3D Systems' newest contribution to this space is Figure 4, a modular 3D printer that is, according to company, meant to be a factory production system.

New 3D Systems’ CEO Vyomesh Joshi discussing Figure 4 with 3D Systems’ Cofounder and CTO Chuck Hull at IMTS 2016.
New 3D Systems’ CEO Vyomesh Joshi discussing Figure 4 with 3D Systems’ Cofounder and CTO Chuck Hull at IMTS 2016.

The name “Figure 4” comes from 3D Systems' Cofounder Chuck Hull's original 1984 patent for stereolithography (SLA) 3D printing technology. “Fig. 4” of the patent illustrates the SLA process with a light source projecting from below liquid resin and a printbed lifting the printed object up from the vat of material. Though the patent was filed 32 years ago, it was never given physical form by 3D Systems—until now.

“Fig. 4” from Chuck Hull’s original SLA patent inspired the design of the new Figure 4 3D printing system. (Image courtesy of 3D Systems/USPTO.)
“Fig. 4” from Chuck Hull’s original SLA patent inspired the design of the new Figure 4 3D printing system. (Image courtesy of 3D Systems/USPTO.)

The Figure 4 setup is an exciting one for both 3D Systems and for those in the 3D printing and manufacturing industries. After speaking with the new CEO of 3D Systems, Vyomesh Joshi, I was able to get a personal look at the machine at International Manufacturing Technology Show (IMTS) 2016.

The Speed of Figure 4

Figure 4 has some very unique features that make it stand out compared to both 3D Systems' existing 3D printers and those from other manufacturers. To start, the system is mounted to an industrial robotic arm, with the arm lifting the printbed and printed object up from a vat of resin.
The Figure 4 setup with built-in inspection at IMTS 2016.
The Figure 4 setup with built-in inspection at IMTS 2016.

It does this very quickly through the use of a specialty membrane that sounds strikingly similar to the oxygen-permeable amorphous fluoropolymer (Teflon AF 2400) membrane patented by Carbon for the start-up's continuous liquid interface production (CLIP) technique.

The sample part shown to us at IMTS took 22 minutes to print. After Joshi suggested that it was fast (“Wait till you see it,” he kept saying), I was expecting it to be faster. In fact, if matched up against CLIP, it is estimated to be about half as fast as Carbon's technology.

Modular 3D Printing for the Production Line

So, it may still be slow by conventional machining standards, but the company suggests that added speed and efficiency come from the robotic arms—which did not appear to be moving any faster than a human—because many print volumes and robotic arms can be used in a single Figure 4 setup.
Post-processing steps are integrated into the platform for automated print finishing. (Image courtesy of 3D Systems/YouTube.)
Post-processing steps are integrated into the platform for automated print finishing. (Image courtesy of 3D Systems/YouTube.)

Robotic arms, single or multiple, are used only for pick and place (unlike the Stratasys system, which uses a 3D printhead mounted onto a robotic arm). While one arm prints an object, another can remove a completed print and implement post-processing procedures, such as secondary ultraviolet curing.

Though each resin tank measures only 3 in x 5 in x 6 in, multiple tanks can be utilized in each Figure 4 setup. More importantly, Figure 4 is scalable so that larger industrial robot arms can be used and the tank can potentially be enlarged.

The Future of Figure 4

This modularity may be essential for integrating such systems into a larger manufacturing workflow. It’s possible to imagine a number of robotic arms operating together to move an object from print to secondary curing to a computer numerical controlled (CNC) stage where support structures are robotically removed.

3D Systems also suggests that the Figure 4 setup can feature built-in inspection and quality assurance. As demonstrated in the video below, robotic arms can hold parts in front of a 3D scanner to be scanned and matched against qualified CAD models to ensure that the parts are within spec. Once inspected, the items could feasibly be sent down a conveyor belt to be packaged and shipped.

So far, no prices are available for Figure 4—not even a range or magnitude. With 3D Systems' recent leadership before Joshi, it was necessary to take heed of such exciting technologies from the company as unrealized products became somewhat common place at the peak of 3D printing’s hype in 2014. Joshi, however, is bringing on a new leadership board and has a seasoned leadership record, so it's possible that the woes of the past can be forgotten in favor of a factory of the future.


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