It was once considered the “dirty secret” of 3D printing. Now, however, post-processing is not just a well-known aspect of the industry, but a thriving sub-segment in itself. Just read the SmarTech report, “Automation, additive manufacturing and the factory of the futureto understand how technology is essential to the “extinct” nature of robotic 3D printing factories.
At present, there are really only a handful of companies in the industry and among them, AMT is a star. This is partly due to high-profile customers who have adopted AMT’s solutions, as well as the fact that it appears to be the only post-processing company focused on the entire segment and not just on finish for this or that additive manufacturing. (AM). To learn more about this crucial segment and AMT’s role within it, we spoke to CEO Joseph Crabtree.
AMT’s Bread and Butter is currently vapor smoothing and depowdering equipment for polymer 3D printing technologies. Its chemical vapor process can seal otherwise porous parts made with material extrusion or powder bed fusion techniques, giving them a vibrant injection molding style finish. Depowdering is specifically for powder bed fusion and uses shot blasting to ensure that parts are free of material particles before further processing.
In addition to the actual finishing of 3D printed parts, other aspects of the 3D printing workflow are being automated. In fact, nearly a decade ago, additive manufacturing companies such as Concept Laser and Additive Industries were promising robotic systems capable of transporting powder and finished parts through the factory. Years later, companies like AMT strive to provide such solutions.
Working with the University of Nottingham and through its own in-house research, the company is working to enable robots to identify, pick up and place and transport parts. While the image of machines automatically moving components through an installation may be what most stimulates the imagination, it is the software that is the most complex task.
“Replacing a human operator is actually quite complex because humans are very good at performing tasks like, for example, hanging parts on a rack and then loading the rack into a machine. While robots can perform this task repeatedly and reproducibly with 200,000 identical injection molded parts, it is very difficult to get a robot to understand where the center of gravity of a 3D printed part is. how to pick and place that part, and then how you inspect the quality and all those kinds of attributes that a human is very, very good at, but robotic systems aren’t that good at. If every part is different, that’s a level of complexity that’s quite difficult to automate in the workflow.
To accomplish this task, the company works with Oechsler, a German injection molding company with more than 150 years of experience in the sector. Together with HP, the partners will work to fully automate the workflow through to finishing. Scheduled to be completed in a year and a half, the project will see a cell for the automatic post-processing of parts from 10 HP Multi Jet Fusion printers at a time.
“Our work with Oechsler is going to involve all of these different stages, which is the physical side of post-processing for finishing, but also how you layer the digital side, which is obviously the software. Essentially how you replace the human operator and make it a truly contactless system. And that’s the problem because the beauty of 3D printing is that every part can be different.
The challenge is to integrate software, hardware, machine learning, vision systems and the 3D printer into a single cell. This means digitally connecting and interfacing with HP machines, automatic part removal and processing. Since MJF printers weren’t designed for this type of workflow to begin with, that means modifying the equipment.
“We push the boundaries of the design of all hardware and ensure that it is fit for purpose in terms of manufacturing sense,” Crabtree said.
Crabtree expects the first production line to ship in early 2023. When it does, it will be used for high-end visible parts for automotive, medical, furniture manufacturing and other applications. Truly, this signals a new era in AM.
“I think the key thing about this is that the end customer is known in the government markets. These are automotive parts for Class A surface finishes,” Crabtree said. “These are parts that can be ordered from the car manufacturer’s website, where they can be specified for your car, and these are parts that feature the most critical Class A surface finish. We’re not just talking about a widget that sits under the dashboard. This is something that is very visible, high-end automotive cars in this space.
A solution provider
Of the few companies involved in post-processing, AMT has the unique strategy of working towards complete solutions. That is to say, it develops solutions for a variety of polymer additive processes, with metal in progress.
The reason behind this is quite simple: New users of 3D printing don’t necessarily understand the industry. In other words, new customers may view the additive space as very complicated, not knowing which technologies or materials are best suited for a given application.
“The biggest challenge from a customer perspective is actually choice. The user journey is still not straightforward. If you’re buying an injection molding machine, the process is really obvious. You make tools. You know what materials go there. It is a known process. With 3D printing, we don’t know exactly how we scale production. This is the gap we are trying to fill.
Rather than letting a manufacturer decide what to do on their own, AMT offers a tailor-made solution. “It’s not fair, here’s a machine that smoothes the parts, or here’s a machine that cleans the parts. It is a solution perfectly adapted to your needs. And those needs may be different depending on whether you’re producing a running shoe, a widget for medical applications, or an automotive part. And I think that’s the thing the industry as a whole is missing,” Crabtree said.
He continued, “And that’s one of the reasons Oechsler hired us. Not only do we provide the physical building blocks of an end-to-end solution, but we can also have the software, machine learning and visual recognition systems. We offer a customizable and tailor-made solution that suits them perfectly. And I think over the next few months and years you’ll start to see this consolidating of materials and printing companies with these finishing and software companies and providing these one-stop-shop solutions.
Given the merger and acquisition activity that briefly flourished in 2021, as well as the increasing size of companies entering the AM industry, we should expect further consolidation in the future. In other words, if general market conditions improve, maybe in the next 18 to 24 months.
When this activity picks up, Crabtree agreed that we will see more consolidation. In order to offer post-processing equipment or one-stop AM solutions, some machine manufacturers like HP, 3D Systems or Stratasys may consider the route of acquisition. However, the post-processing space is still underdeveloped, so a potential buyer will likely want to wait until existing businesses develop the space sufficiently before jumping in.
For now, Stratasys has chosen DyeMansion for its selective absorption melting technology, while 3D Systems and HP are working more closely with AMT, and Carbon is working with PostProcess Technologies. Could we see mergers occurring between these firms? Another option could be for a large conglomerate to enter the industry and acquire both printer manufacturers and post-processing companies to form a full AM division.
“The value is that companies like AMT basically do the heavy lifting, building out all the hardware and the ecosystem. Then I can see a time when a printer OEM would consolidate,” Crabtree said. “Now , of course, it’s a matter of OEM scale. Is someone coming to buy a printing company and a post-processing company? The acquiring company should be large enough and the market size should be large enough to justify this. »
The next step
The growth that will occur from AMT will not only be greater automation, but also a broader product portfolio. This includes smoothing metal parts. The startup has done basic research in space and has been awarded a number of patents for post-processing 3D printed metal parts. In fact, it has already started to market metal parts cleaning systems. An official metal post-processing line, however, won’t hit the market for another 18-24 months.
Once that happens, it will make AMT the only company that manufactures both metal and polymer post-processing solutions. Certainly, other space companies are rushing to catch up. However, AMT is already much further along and it remains to be seen whether the competition can actually do this without consolidation.
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