At the RAPID 2016 show in Orlando, EnvisionTEC unveiled its Selective Lamination Composites Object Manufacturing (SLCOM 1) machine. According to the company, the machine is the first and only disruptive industrial-scale, composites 3D printer, and is capable of manufacturing parts in materials like nylon, PEEK, polycarbonate, fibreglass and carbon fibre.
Sarah Webster, Editor in Chief of SME’s Advanced Manufacturing Media recently interviewed Al Siblani, CEO of EnvisionTEC for a podcast, which you can find here. Below is a full transcript of the podcast.
Sarah: Hi, welcome to this episode of Advanced Manufacturing Now. My name is Sarah Webster and I’m your host for today’s show. I’m sitting in the headquarters of EnvisionTEC in Dearborn Michigan with the CEO and founder, Al Siblani, and we’re talking about something really exciting today. This is a 3D printing company on the cutting edge and they’re gonna make an appointment announcement tomorrow, but before we get to that, Al, tell me a little bit about yourself and your company.
Al: My name is Al Siblani and I’m the CEO and founder of EnvisionTEC. EnvisionTEC is a company that is primarily driven by innovation. EnvisionTEC is a manufacturer of 3D printing equipment, however our focus and our success has always been derived from pushing the envelope and always trying to deliver a solution that utilises 3D printing equipment. We started in 2002, we were the first company to bring the DLP technology into 3D printing, in 2010 we were the first company to deliver the 3SP technology which is scan, spin and selectively photo cure. In 2001 we delivered the Bioplotter, and today we are selling our 4th generation. We are very excited about delivering the new technology platform to the 3D printing stage, which has never been done before, it will be released for the first time at the RAPID show on Tuesday.
Sarah: So this is very exciting, how long has this technology been in development?
Al: Well we started working on this technology over 5 years ago, the principle then we worked on the optimisation and primarily made a point of making the system more commercially viable in the last couple of years, so the last 2 years we started working very heavily on what I call the alpha prototype.
Sarah: Before we get into this new machine, and how it works and why it’s so valuable, you do have a very wide range of customers in the marketplace, you have aerospace, you have automotive, consumer products… Tell me what you can about your existing bank of customers that spans just an incredible breadth of technologies.
Al: EnvisionTEC is a global company that operates and has distribution channels in over 150 countries, we have a huge number of install bays that is spread across 12 different verticals. So whether it’s automotive or if it’s aerospace, sporting goods, consumer products, bio-fabrication, and what have you, we have a wide spread of customer base. The interesting thing that EnvisionTEC was the first company to take 3D printing from what I call a prototyping stage to mass customisation. We’re the first one to actually deliver the hearing aid industry a finished good that could be used in the ear, we’re the first company that delivered a dental crown that can be used in the mouth, directly from the 3D printed machine, and we were the first one to implement the mass customisation on a local level for the jewellery market. Today with this new technology we’re gonna bring more customisation into a space that’s never been done before.
Sarah: And so what is the name of your new technology that you’re going to be unveiling tomorrow for the first time?
Al: So we’re very excited, we’re very proud of definitely delivering the first to market as EnvisionTEC has been leading and delivering innovation, and it’s the SLCOM, which is selective lamination, composites, object manufacturing.
Sarah: The whole marketplace for airplanes, defence goods like tanks and drones and cars, not to mention other objects that require energy to move has really been moving away from metals, or away from the heaviest metals, to lighter materials that are stronger, and this helps to fill a need in that respect. Explain to us, so this does selective lamination, to build composites, how does this work, and why is this such a breakthrough?
Al: So, interestingly enough, when we decided as a company to grow into a different space we looked at metals and we found out that there are a lot of people that are engaged in the metal 3D printing and we wanted to do something that has not been done before, so we looked primarily at composites, and we looked primarily at composites that are not unidirectional, but more which is bidirectional or multidirectional. We decided now that the carbon fibre pricing has gone down and the fibreglass fabric pricing has gone down that it was viable to develop a technology in 3D printing that would allow us to deliver parts that would have infinite shelf life, have very high strength and stiffness, and be very lightweight, so we’re looking for a material that is really a breakthrough that will take 3D printing into the next phase where automotive and aerospace can benefit drastically from it. So we came up with the SLCOM 1 system, which we are releasing. The SLCOM 1 system will start with a build envelope of 24 inches, and 30 inches in Y and 24 inches in Z. This is a very decent sized part that will cover a wide range of parts that could be printed. But what is more important about the technology is it’s ability to use existing materials that are in the market today, and that means that a lot of the parts that are currently being made, hand layered, in different markets whether it’s automotive, transportation, or consumer goods like tractors or exotic cars or Formula 1 type customers, these customers will have access to a technology today that is affordable and would allow to deliver extremely very competitive mechanical and environmental properties that’s never been done before in the 3D printing space.
Sarah: So that’s incredibly exciting when we think of a build envelope of 24 to 30 by 24, what kinds of parts would you target or think about for meeting that kind of requirement? I know that even in aerospace they’re looking at things like smaller brackets, but can you give us a sense of what kinds of parts you might, one might, benefit from for this technology?
Al: So the most exciting thing about the technology is its versatility, so if you’re looking at a list of thermoplastics that could be used as a reinforcement for the list of fibres that could be done, so you’re looking at the thermoplastics side you can use Nylon 6, Nylon 11, polycarbonate, polypropylene, you can use PEEK, our machine is capable of actually processing PEEK that is used a reinforcement for the carbon fibre and for the fibreglass. You can also use different type of fibres, so whether you are using carbon fibre, whether you’re using fibreglass, whether you are using any kind of aramid fibre, the combination of those 2 is possible, and that’s primarily going to be driven by the customer demand. So a customer can come to us and say I would like you to deliver me a carbon fibre fabric with a 0 to 90, the 2 directions, and I want 40% PEEK in the matrix, or I want 50%, and based on the requirements of that specific customer, we’re gonna deliver the roll of material which comes (the machine uses rolls of the material) based on the requirements of that specific customer. So the customer is making a bracket that is going outside the machine, he may use a different thermoplastic that a part that goes inside the plane, so if you’re looking for a self extinguishing or a no smoke type of thermoplastic that goes with your fibreglass, you can look at PEEK instead of looking at something like Nylon 6 or Nylon 12. So ultimately the versatility of the machine is what’s exciting because we combine any thermoplastic and maybe in the future thermosets as well, with any kind of fabric, regardless of how many directions it is, and we’ll talk more, and we’ll learn more about some of the new innovations that we’ve implemented in the SLCOM technology in order to deliver higher mechanical properties than that compared to the hand layup as we look at the strength and the XYZ direction of the finished good.
Sarah: So you were kind enough to bring me a lot of samples here to look at today, of different materials, and it’s very clear that this is a weave type layup strategy or not even printing strategy, tell me a little bit about how the machine actually works, and how you got it to optimise it for this marketplace.
Al: Yes, so the process which is selective lamination, composite object manufacturing, uses the idea of laminating sheets of weave that are reinforced with a thermoplastic based on the customer needs. Once lamination occurs an ultrasonic cutter running at a very high frequency is going to cut the fabric which is reinforced with thermoplastic, and the reason we use an ultrasonic blade is to eliminate any kind of flaring of the fibres during the cutting so we can have a clean cut. Once we do the cutting, then we use what is called a, something like an inkjet head, to jet in a, very selectively in areas where we don’t want the next layer to stick, so we basically create non adhesion areas that are close to the contour of the part and in other areas to make the part easier to separate and remove when the block of the part, the full envelope, is finished. And so there are 2 major innovations here, or 3 major innovations, the way that I can talk about right now. There’s a lot of other ones that are technical but when you look at the system for the average user or operator on the machine he will see a method where we actually do not need to register the sheets on top of each other, so we laminate and then we cut, and we don’t need any kind of registration of the sheets, that’s a very important point, so we always have very high accurate parts. The second point which is very important and innovative, is our ability to selectively inhibit the areas where we want to laminate to make the separation and the de-cubing, or the removing of the excess material, much easier. So that’s the second thing that we’re doing, which is important, and then of course, some of the other things that we’re doing is that during the building process, the whole build area is sitting on a rotating table, so not only can we actually.. we’re not only driven and stuck to the dimensions of the 2 fibres, we can actually rotate the build platform that the part is being built on, so the next layer will have fibres that are a different direction, as they laid down on…
Sarah: …which enhances strength…
Al: …and that drastically improves strength, and we have the capability of rotating the table in both counter clockwise and clockwise, and again that would deliver a much higher strength in terms of the X and Y direction.
Sarah: So one of the things that is an issue always in the composites world is end finishing and are we getting to near net shape here and then there has to be hand finishing like it currently exists in most layup for composites, or is this a process that provides the kind of edge where no post processing is required? Talk to me a little about the edge quality with your technology.
Al: So given the fact that we’re using a new heating mechanism where we preheat the thermoplastic on the fibre and then we apply what is called a pressure roller at a specific temperature in order to press it down, we have what is called a pre-lamination thickness and a post lamination thickness. So we know based exactly based on the percentage of the thermoplastic what is the final thickness of the finished good once its been preheated and pressed, and therefore we are capable due to the accuracy in the X and Y dimension of our plotter and the accuracy in the Z dimension of the predetermined post lamination thickness we are capable of deliver(ing) a finished good from a machine that will give you an accuracy that is more than acceptable compared to the hand layup, so there is again, there is no post processing beyond de-cubing of the part and removing any excess material. It is a finished good that will have specification, will have accuracy, that is very much acceptable in the automotive, aerospace and other markets that we are looking at.
Sarah: So what is involved with de-cubing the part, exactly?
Al: So the de-cubing of the part is…if you want to simplify it you can imagine a Rubiks cube and a part that is sitting in the centre of the Rubiks cube, and the idea is that all these cubes are going to be separated and its going to be much easier to separate those cubes because of the fact that we have implemented a new and innovative selective inhibition, that would not allow those cubes to stick to the part.
Sarah: So sort of like snapping them apart if you will? Or is that a…
Al: Those parts in the process we have the possibility of creating a retaining wall…
Sarah: Oh ok…
Al: So once that retaining wall is removed around the Rubiks cube those cubes are gonna fall apart.
Al: So we’ll be, it will be very easy process that will take minutes, not hours.
Sarah: So SME hosts the RAPID show where you’ll be showing this new technology tomorrow for the first time which is very exciting, how long has this been in a final stage where it is ready to launch? Has it been long? How many customers have seen this in advance of your showing it tomorrow?
Al: Well, so one of the things that I’ve always insisted on is making sure that you have a machine that runs. And we’ve never delivered the technology where we took the technology and never ran the machine. So based on that, we decided that we were not going to talk about this technology because again, it’s what EnvisionTEC has always done, we’ve delivered technology that works. We’re delivering technology that people are going to see in action, and we’re delivering technologies where you are gonna be able to see parts..
Sarah: So tell me a little bit about, you only sell professional grade printers, that’s all you do here, you don’t really do consumer printers.
Al: That’s correct.
Sarah: So, what kind of customers have already shown interest in this technology? I know that people hear about things behind the scenes and that you probably work a little bit with your customers behind the scenes to talk about what’s coming..
Al: Well, we’re very excited that a lot of the people who are primarily driven, and primarily investing heavily in the composite space are the people that have shown the most interest so we’re looking very much into the aerospace and all the big names, without mentioning them, and I have to say we’re grateful for the RAPID show team for allowing us to have those customers take a first look at the equipment prior to the opening of the exhibition.
Sarah: So, tell us a little bit more about the strength and the features of final parts that can be made with the variety of materials that can be used on the SLCOM.
Al: So like the hand layers, the hand layered parts that are currently being made today using a tool the advantage of 3D printing is that you don’t need a tool in order to deliver the final part. The part, as I said earlier, will be a finished good, and the mechanical properties will be no less than those that are done in the hand layering process. As you know in the hand layering process the mechanical properties are primarily driven by the type of fibre that’s being used in combination with the thermoplastic and in the Z direction the primary driver for the mechanical properties is the thermoplastic that’s being used. So we’re looking at parts that are coming out of the SLCOM 1 that are very much in line with what is typically being seen in the market today for people who deal with composites when you look at the mechanical properties. Because again, and I say again because it’s an important point, we’re dealing with the same type of materials that are currently being hand laid down, whether they’re using thermoplastic or thermosets.
Sarah: As you know, speed is always an issue. Especially when you’re comparing yourself against something that’s currently often hand made, what kind of comparisons can you give me on speed, you know obviously you’re cutting out the post processing, so that’s an important thing. But also you know, with better finishes on the edges and maybe tighter weaves here assuming that this is probably faster…Is there any way you can quantify how fast your machine is? I know there’s a lot of different variables with materials and so forth.
Al: So the most interesting thing here is not just speed but also repeat ability and reliability. When you look at repeat ability and reliability of a machine versus a human being, who is going to be tired after 8 hours, however the machine is gonna run 24 hours a day without any issues, so any time you introduce the human factor you’re looking at some sort of an error that occurs when you are doing something repeatable, especially when it’s repeatable. So the idea of 3D printing by all means of the fabric composite is going to be a more reliable method. It’s going to be more repeatable, and with the current cutting system that we have, which is an ultrasonic blade type system, we’re going to have more consistency. We’re definitely going to have a finished product not a near net shape but a finished product, and again, the idea here is to deliver a finished good that could be used straight where the final application as in, and for that reason, you know, we’re looking for…at EnvisionTEC the goal has always been in the professional and industrial places as making products that matter. Products that you can use, and again, by delivering the SLCOM 1 to the industrial space on Tuesday, that will be the first that’s ever been done before by EnvisionTEC.
Sarah: Well we’re really looking forward to checking out this technology up close tomorrow at the show, is there anything else about this machine that you’d like to add? And what other printers are you going to have available at the show tomorrow? I guess the whole range?
Al: Yes, so you know we’re going to be showing the DLP technology, we’re going to be introducing the QuickView, which is a very high speed material that allows you to build approximately 1 inch for the full envelope in 45 minutes, the QView will be running on the Perfactory product line, which has become the benchmark for DLP printing in this space, we’re also going to be showing the exceed with the 3SP technology , the 3SP technology is a technology that uses a spinning mirror with a laser which is a dialed laser, so the operating cost and overhead cost is going to be much cheaper compared to the stereo lithography processes, we’re going to be showing a 4th generation Bioplotter and show some examples of the different products that come out in the bio fabrication space. We’re going to be releasing for the first time the Vector, which is a 3SP based technology with a build envelope of 300mm by 200mm by 200mm, that type of machine historically has been very expensive when employed in the stereo lithography space in terms of the build envelope, but this new Vector is going to be a factor of 3 to 5 times cheaper than the existing stereo lithography system in this space, and will be twice as fast. So we’re excited about the Vector and the introduction to the 3SP technology, but by all means we are very excited about delivering what EnvisionTEC has always done, first to market the first industrial composite 3D printer.
Sarah: Thank you so much for your time Al, it’s been really wonderful, I wish you the best of luck at the show tomorrow, and if you want to learn more about this technology be sure to check out our story at advancedmanufacturing.org