The Digital Workflow Gets a Bridge
Roopinder Tara posted on November 13, 2017 | 1624 views
“Lucky,” victim of bone cancer, skull and wrist fractures, needy of jaw realignment, greets visitors at 3D Systems’ Denver area facility, an example of the company’s expertise in creating customized body parts.
“Lucky,” victim of bone cancer, skull and wrist fractures, needy of jaw realignment, greets visitors at 3D Systems’ Denver area facility, an example of the company’s expertise in creating customized body parts.

Many companies wish getting a part made was easy as plugging a computer to a 3D printer and pushing a button. This noble goal may become a reality thanks to 3D Systems, the company best known for its array of 3D printers. 

Vyomish Joshi, CEO of 3D Systems, at company's launch event, is all about helping manufacturing companies achieve a digital workflow.

Vyomish Joshi, CEO of 3D Systems, at company's launch event, is all about helping manufacturing companies achieve a digital workflow.

CEO Vyomesh Joshi, with his executives in step at the company’s recent press launch, referred to the “digital workflow,” the idea that a part can exist as bits and bytes all the way from its design to its physical realization.

What Is the Digital Workflow?

The digital workflow is the process a part endures to get made. It is different for different industries. The process can be anything but smooth. A part starts as a CAD part, but is converted to paper drawings, re-digitized as g-code and machined on a milling machine before the finished part can be held in your hand. In a dream digital workflow, the part moves unimpeded by stops, changes and human intervention. If the tortuous process is like a previous century traveler on a journey taken on foot, in a carriage and a ship, the dream digital workflow is like a nonstop flight.

Joshi targets certain industries already more modern and digital than others, those with less stop-and-go in their workflow and computerized for less human intervention, as the ones most able to benefit from his 3D printers. Large-scale manufacturing has enormous potential. A factory that can operate without humans or lights and no messy cutting fluids and metal shavings is a 3D-printer company’s promise. Another industry is health care. A patient’s digital data—the result of CAT scans and MRIs—is perfect for customized replacement parts. It is a market seemingly without cost constraints and one in which 3D Systems has had much success. Jewelry is next.

But as 3D printing is currently a process rather than a push button, a self-made industry has sprung up to assist. In it are experienced practitioners of 3D printing, chiefly among service bureaus that accept design file in CAD or formats and turn them into STL files that the 3D printers can deal with. 

3DXpert, provided with 3D Systems metal printers, can create support structures automatically or help you optimize them, as shown here.
3DXpert, provided with 3D Systems metal printers, can create support structures automatically or help you optimize them, as shown here.

3DXpert

There is software to assist in the transition from CAD to 3D print. 3D Systems has one for metal parts called 3DXpert. First shown to us at IMTS 2016, the company gave us another look at it during the launch event. 3DXpert is provided free with every 3D printer 3D Systems makes, although a few bells and whistles are extra cost items—simulation and advanced lattice control. Some of its notable features follow.

Automatic Supports—or None

Overhanging geometry must be supported during the build of a 3D part. 3DXpert will automatically add a support structure underneath parts with angles of less than 45 degrees to the horizontal of a given distance. The automatically created supports can be overridden and more control applied. Distance between the supports and their thickness also can be varied. 

Look – no supports! 3DXpert allows the angle of overhang requiring support to vary. It is possible to avoid support altogether, according to 3D Systems, showing a part with lots of overhang.
Look – no supports! 3DXpert allows the angle of overhang requiring support to vary. It is possible to avoid support altogether, according to 3D Systems, showing a part with lots of overhang.

3DXpert lets you finesse the movement of the print head, controlling the direction as it scans in each layer of the part. The contours and hatches are visible on screen for selected slices. This can either help optimize for reduced print time or be used to strengthen a part along one direction, taking advantage of the directional properties within a build layer. In the screw part shown, this allowed for the part to be built without any support structure. Metal supports are not the easiest to remove, so the extra time to tailor the part’s strength is offset by the reduced labor in having to cut off the supports.

3DXpert is based on boundary representation modeling (B-rep) from the ACIS geometry engine. The program has largely been the effort of the Cimatron team, the Israeli CNC software vendor acquired by 3D Systems in 2014.

3DXpert will do a finite element analysis (FEA) to detect the expansions and contractions the print material undergoes, which can result in warpage and in worst case, breakage.
3DXpert will do a finite element analysis (FEA) to detect the expansions and contractions the print material undergoes, which can result in warpage and in worst case, breakage.

Lattices

3DXpert can lightweight a part by hollowing it out and filling the void with a lattice structure. The lattice can be varied with a great number of parameters in the paid-for version.
3DXpert can lightweight a part by hollowing it out and filling the void with a lattice structure. The lattice can be varied with a great number of parameters in the paid-for version.

A Bridge

3DXpert provides a bridge along the digital workflow from CAD geometry to 3D printed metal part. It is meant for 3D-printer power users, the equivalent of machinists who guide their CNC machine, giving them incredible control of it.

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