As the largest 3D printing exhibition of the year, formnext provides the perfect opportunity to understand industry sentiments and technology developments. Building on the drive toward additive manufacturing for production, a key theme apparent at formnext 2019 was machine connectivity: providing customers with the tools to successfully integrate 3D printing into their respective production environments.
Much of this integration is being driven from a software standpoint. OEMs and developers are focusing on APIs and product workflows capable of taking customers seamlessly through concept to final product. Automation also has its part to play in integration, and product releases, like EOS’ Shared Modules, reflected this.
Speaking with C-level executives at this year’s show I learned more about the challenges of integration, and steps being taken to introduce more 3D printers to the factory floor.
Additive manufacturing doesn’t need more robots
Based in Pflugerville, Texas, Essentium Inc. is the producer of industrial polymer systems based on proprietary High Speed Extrusion (HSE) and FlashFuse technology. At formnext 2019, the company had its full range of machines on display (the HSE 180 S LT, 180 S and 180 S HT). By formnext 2020, the number of machines in Essentium’s portfolio is expected to rise to around ten as Blake Teipel, the company’s CEO, told me, the plan is to launch machines with independent dual extruders for the respective HSE and FlashFuse technologies. In addition to machines, Essentium provides its own materials including PEEK, High-Temperature Nylon (HTN), HTN-CF25 and ESD safe HTN-Z that were recently launched for its high-temperature machines.
Speaking about the next steps for the company, and the industry as a whole, CEO Teipel’s response to automation was unexpected. “We don’t need more automation,” he explained, “What we need is more ecosystem-focused platforms where the automation systems of the world can plug into the machine tool.”
Essentium is currently planning the launch of new slicing software that will be made available early next year as a standalone and under a perpetual license. Focusing on production-level 3D printing, the software is complete with a labeling feature that carries serial numbers throughout a part’s production. Precise extrusion programming in the slicer will also provide more control over the function (and potential ease-of-post-processing) in the final part, which is a key development for production.
As far as Teipel is concerned, established CNC and injection molding machines are now a realistic yardstick for industrial additive manufacturing. “You have to have a printer that’s built like a machine tool,” Teipel adds “So it’s the CNC mill, it’s an injection molding machine, and it plays nice with other systems.
“I don’t need more robots. I need robots that are able to talk with their software to our software which also has to talk to like a Siemens or SAP-based manufacturing execution software.”
Acceleration of APIs
A startup based in Tel-Aviv, Israel, LEO Lane is offering production users of 3D printers with a solution to protect and secure their digital process chains.
Lee-Bath Nelson is the company’s VP Business and one of four members of the co-founding team at LEO Lane. Coming from a core software background, for the LEO Lane team, connectivity is crucial. “From day one, we had very rich APIs so it’s very easy to integrate with us,” Nelson explains. Though APIs are being considered more and more by OEMs, they are not something however that Nelson believes have been considered by the industry on the whole, “I think that this is something that everybody needs to think about.”
“I think for the industry to move forward, it needs to be accelerated.”
Adding to sentiments surrounding machine integration, Nelson adds, “You have to play well with others. You have to integrate. And if you can’t do that, then you’re at a big disadvantage.”
Uniting digital and physical
Through its NX software, Siemens has been doing its bit to help solve additive manufacturing integration challenges for some time. Building on such core software offerings, one of the company’s most intriguing exhibits at the show was an intuitive factory planner.
The first part of this planner, offered as a service a consultancy basis by Siemens, is a physical checkerboard populated with to-scale 3D printed models of 3D printers and auxiliary systems. On top of each of these models is a QR tag that is tracked by an overhead camera. Each time one of the models is moved, the camera feeds-back in realtime to a computer screen which shows the machines in a virtual representation of the factory floor.
One marker, with an arrow representing its direction of “view”, represents a member of personnel on the factory floor. As with all of the machine models, this marker can be moved to any point on the checkboard, thus changing the point of view within the factory. Virtually placing the customer within a factory arrangement, this setup is used to help build the most efficient factory configuration for operations, and explore physical limitations without having to move the real machines. Customers are also given the chance to explore a factory arrangement in VR. This tool is especially useful when working on an international project when it is less feasible for all personnel to be onsite at the same time.
The second part of Siemens’ intuitive factory planner, which works in line with the VR tool, is Siemens Digital Industries Software Tecnomatix Plant Simulation. This software tool runs a virtual demonstration of the factory, including the paths of operators (or robot vehicles) between different parts of the process chain. It helps Seimens’ customers to identify potential bottlenecks that are costing operations, and again make decisions about factory layout in order to optimize production.
Overall, Siemens’ intuitive factory planner is intended to help customers scale-up production, set up an additive manufacturing facility, or arrange a hybrid factory, and come to conclusions about which and how many machines require investment.
While not an exhaustive exploration of the many ways in which businesses are improving their integration on the factory floor, Essentium, LEO Lane and Siemens provide some good examples of action being taken across the board.
Additive manufacturing for production is still at the forefront of 3D printing industry innovations, and as machines continue to get more efficient at producing end-use parts the industry is responding with supporting solutions in software and auxiliary systems.
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Featured image shows 3D printed machine models used in intuitive factory planning from Siemens. Photo by Beau Jackson