Automating 3D printing post-production is the key to success

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Manufacturers are increasingly using 3D printing as a manufacturing method. The Dutch industrial 3D printing market will grow in the coming years to reach more than 22 billion euros by 2030, according to a Watercraft report. Where just a few years ago the technology was only used for prototyping, it is now so advanced that complete finished products are coming out of commercial printers.

But for how upstream digital and intelligent 3D printing can be, the process conversely is just as inefficient once these products come out of the printer. Almost in all cases, the parts are still identified, sorted and post-processed manually. Perfectly doable for a few prototypes, but a repetitive and time-consuming task when hundreds of products suddenly come out of a printer every day. “In addition, the risk of errors increases,” says Dennis Lieffering of AM-Flux. The company has been working on automating this process since 2018. It develops the software in Amsterdam. All mechanical and robotic applications are carried out in Eindhoven on the Brainport Industries campus.

“Some parts are virtually indistinguishable from each other. These are very small differences. This sometimes makes it difficult to see which 3D model belongs to which customer and what to do with each part. Or where they should go in the factory. He calls all this manual labor the “dirty secret” of the additive manufacturing industry. Lieffering: “Companies rightly like to show off the benefits of 3D printing. But the “back end” – what happens in post-production – often remains outside the image. It is still true that as production increases so does labor costs. There is a lot of manual labor involved not only in cleaning, identifying and sorting the printed parts, but all the way through the factory. Until the packaging.

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Automatic identification and sorting in seconds

To solve this problem, AM-Flow is developing machines that rely on data, sensors and AI. Not only do these machines shorten the production process, but they also allow engineers, who currently mainly do this manual work, to have more time for other work. Designing better products, on the one hand. It works as follows. Once a product comes out of the 3D printer, it is first cleaned. Then, a robotic arm takes the 3D printed objects from a tray and places them on a conveyor belt that goes to the AM-Vision module. This is equipped with 10 cameras which identify a product in a few milliseconds and transmit it to the sorting system. From there, the parts are sent by autonomous carts to the appropriate department for additional finishing, for example painting or polishing. Finally, the parts are automatically packaged and labeled for shipment to the customer.

“We are also making the ‘back end’ of 3D printing digital with our technology. No human intervention is needed here anymore. We link our software to the manufacturer’s software. This contains 3D models, product schedules, and what should happen to the printed parts. Do they get a color? Should we polish them? Using this 3D model, along with a self-learning algorithm and cameras, the module can identify products at lightning speed, ”says Lieffering. What is unique about this system is that it does not matter how the printed parts end up on the conveyor belt, as they can be recognized from all sides. “Manually, this identification and sorting can sometimes take up to a minute, now it only takes a few seconds. This makes it possible to reduce manufacturing costs per product.

Gap in the market

According to Lieffering, AM-Flow is currently the only player involved in the digitization and automation of post-production processes in 3D printing. And this is no surprise. The technology is still relatively new, so manufacturers are mainly occupied with the development of 3D printing technology and materials. Lieffering begins to speak enthusiastically about its history. “It all started in 1986. Chuck Hull printed the prototype of a cup holder for a Saab using stereolithography. He used a laser to melt the synthetic resin needed for this. Since then, all kinds of techniques have been added and experimented with by all kinds of businesses.

For example, SLS (Selective laser sintering), which involves lasers melting plastic or metal powder. Or FDM, (Fusion deposition modeling) where the products are built layer by layer and the base material is a long plastic strand. “All of these techniques in turn have their own specifications and properties. In addition, new raw materials with which to print are constantly added. It is logical that the development of this process has been at the center of our concerns during all this time ”, explains Lieffering.

With the expiration of a number of patents around 2005, 3D printing suddenly became available to manufacturers. “All kinds of new printers have come onto the market and the technology has gotten cheaper and cheaper. Just like the printing equipment, for that matter. If these material costs continue to fall, it will become more and more attractive to print finished products.

3D printing has a future

Lieffering believes that 3D printing is set to gain momentum in the years to come. “It’s not just the price of production that will drop. There are plenty of other advantages. Compared to other production techniques, you need less material and you can adjust the design and production process much faster. Plus, you no longer need to manufacture products halfway around the world. Everything can be done locally. Just compare it to the print shop around the corner. See what Shapeways is doing. All you need to do is download a 3D model and you are good to go.

With customers as diverse as BMW, Materialize and Midwest Prototyping, AM-Flow is working on a new machine in the automation process. “The quality control of printed products is now done in dedicated measurement rooms. It is especially important in the automotive or aerospace industry that a product does not deviate too much from the 3D model. But manufacturers who print something with electronics also want to check if it meets specifications. The current inspection method takes on average about 15 minutes or more. We want to drastically reduce that. In principle, with the digital model, we have all the information we need to determine the quality with the customer.


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