Last updateSat, 08 Aug 2020 9pm

Post processing an integral part of additive manufacturing

The post processing of 3D printed parts is an often overlooked stage of the process chain for additive manufacturing (AM). Sometimes referred to as 3D printing’s ‘dirty little secret,’ it is a necessary but frequently labour-intensive discipline that requires considerable manual intervention. Today, post processing remains a major hurdle for companies looking to scale their additive manufacturing (AM) operations for production applications. AMT is one company that is redressing the balance in this area and offers end-to-end solutions that truly unlock the advantages that AM offers for high volume applications.

An Interview with Additive Manufacturing Technologies’ CEO, Joseph Crabtree

When was AMT founded and what is the remit of the company?

We were formed in 2017, in Sheffield in the UK where our facilities include R&D operations, technical support, sales and applications development.

We've got a fully owned manufacturing facility in Hungary, where we do all of our engineering, design work and manufacturing. That's quite a unique selling proposition of ours - the fact that we do all the design and manufacturing in-house. We've just opened up a 20,000 square foot facility in Austin, Texas, which is going to serve the US markets, and we’ve also just employed our first employee in the APAC region as well. We’re expanding globally and very rapidly.

The aim of the company is to truly enable industrial AM through the development and commercialisation of sustainable, digitally connected and fully automated post processing solutions.

Until now, growing numbers of companies have been regularly using AM for prototypes with some transitioning to low volume production applications. What we're trying to do is help scale AM technology from low volume applications to full industrial capabilities. We want to make 3D printing a viable alternative to traditional manufacturing.

To be honest, as an industry, we're a long way from that. That’s because the biggest problem today is with 3D printers. Not with what they can do, but rather, because everyone has been concentrating only on developing bigger, faster, better printers. That’s great, BUT, it is only one part of the puzzle. Companies are starting to focus more on the materials being printed, to bring costs down and increase material availability, which is also vital for innovative application development with AM.

And yet, the biggest challenge remains that the parts coming off the 3D printers at the end of the process are still often not suitable for end-use parts.

And when we talk about end-use parts, we’re talking about products and parts that in various sectors including medical devices, under-the-hood automotive applications, interior aerospace parts, and consumer products such as footwear or sports equipment. None of these examples are fit for purpose directly off a 3D printer, regardless of how sophisticated that 3D printer is — they all need to be finished, or post processed.

This wasn't so much of an issue for producing low volumes of parts. The trade-off here was that while manually finishing the parts increased costs, the margins on these parts were higher. Now that companies are assessing AM for production applications at higher volumes, the margin is absolutely critical. When post-processing can account for up to 60 per cent of the part’s cost, it can become prohibitive and something needs to be done about it.

AMT focuses on the post processing chain, and what I mean by that is everything after the print. So, in the case of powder-based AM, this includes the de-powdering stage and surface modification of the part, which means smoothing, sealing, colouring and otherwise enhancing the performance of a part.

The final step is inspection and quality control. AMT is bringing all of these steps in the process chain together with an automated end-to-end solution. It is a technology-agnostic approach, in that we work with all 3D printing technologies.

At this point, AMT is focused on 3D printed polymers, specifically, thermoplastic polymers, which is in essence, powder bed and extrusion-based technologies. More than 95 polymers are validated for our systems. And in actuality, our goal is to provide that end-to-end automation system to the part.

Our recent Series A funding round, with investment from DSM Venturing and Foresight Group, Williams Advanced Engineering, highlights AMT’s commitment to complete what we call ‘the polymer to part ecosystem.’ Essentially, what we're doing here is considering the entire ecosystem involved in AM production applications — from material selection, including looking at how to design the selected material(s) for 3D printing, and subsequently optimising the printing process accordingly.

Fundamentally, what we're doing is material science, combined with mechanical engineering and automation. The post-processing stage enables the tailoring of mechanical properties of the printed part, such that the overall mechanical properties are improved compared with the part that comes directly off the machine.

Combining all of this is absolutely critical for us, and that's why all of our systems are industrial, targeted specifically at the industrial end user.

What are some of the current challenges companies face when it comes to post-processing specifically?

The biggest problem is lack of awareness. So until fairly recently, not only did companies not understand about 3D printing, but they also had no idea that once you get a 3D printer, you have to do some post-processing to the part.

It’s a very difficult situation, because the 3D printer manufacturers are never going to sell you a printer and say that the initial output is poor quality and, therefore, you're going to have to buy an additional piece of equipment.

They never spoke about post-processing, but the time and costs of post-processing far eclipses any of the benefits achieved through increased printing speeds. What we hope to enable, is for the printer manufacturers to get further market penetration, allowing them to offer a complete solution to their customers.

Post processing is something no one ever really wants to talk about. This means that education is a challenge in this regard, especially for those customers who are coming into the market now.

As a result, companies buying a 3D printer for the first time, may know very little about 3D printing and are now facing the challenge of post-processing. Therefore, it's about educating end users and showing them that it's not a series of discrete independent machinery items that you need to buy to make this process, say, a one-touch button solution, as maybe some of the promotional videos would have you think.

The second big aspect is that there is no other technology on the market, apart from ours, that is truly automated. Yes, there are other post-processing technologies but, typically, they are rehashes of very well-known technologies. None of them are digital.

Currently, you need to be skilled in all those nuanced operations that require this ‘black art’ to run. So that’s really a major challenge. And, at the moment, there aren't any options for post-processing that are really innovative, as well as a digital incentive.

The biggest single challenge, in terms of technology we've seen, is depowdering. No one has come up with a truly automated unpacking and depowdering solution that requires no human intervention. That is a real challenge. It's not just a depowdering and automation challenge, it’s a machine learning, machine sorting challenge, and those are the common challenges that we are tackling.

Are automated de-powdering solutions a thing?

We have partners we're working with to develop real solutions for this. It's a big unlock for them, because again, if you've got your powder bed and you need to remove your parts, there's currently no other way to do it than manually. Even traditional tumbling solutions still need a lot of manual intervention, because one thing humans are very good at is delicate and difficult operations: identification of things (like powder on the part), removing said powder without destroying the part and sorting parts etc. We’re working towards automating these steps to improve time and cost efficiencies.

How does your PostPro3D technology work?

PostPro3D is our core technology. It was based on IP licensed from the University of Sheffield and then developed with an Innovate UK grant. It's been in development for about 8 years in terms of fundamental research, followed by industrial research.

It is a chemical vapour smoothing process that uses proprietary chemicals to smooth the surface of a 3D-printed polymer part.

By smoothing the surface, we don't just mean making it aesthetically pleasing, we’re actually engineering the surface of the part. The chemical solution seals the surface and removes the porosity of the part. It also prevents water ingress or gas ingress and actually enhances mechanical properties. The result is a part that has high elongation at break and better fatigue properties.

In addition to that, there are all of the elastomeric materials that we can process, which couldn’t be processed even with mechanical methods, for example. The PostPro3D can post-process parts printed using highly engineered polymers like ULTEM, nylons, TPU, & TPE, etc.

The PostPro3D is the first machine with surface modification technology that we brought to market. It is an industrial piece of equipment designed for industrial end users, with a process chamber size close to 100 litres to process higher volumes of parts.

We've also brought out the PostPro3D Mini. It’s physically a third of the size of the PostPro3D, significantly cheaper but using the same flagship technology to extend usage to research institutes, smaller service bureaus and people who may only have one printer. And that's appropriately priced to be accessible to those people, so they can then try the technology before they commit to anything bigger or expand operations.

The benefit of our process is that all of our parts and processing have gone through cycle toxicity testing and it is currently going through FDA medical approval, etc. So that's really important when we talk about regulated, industrial end-use applications.

In addition, complementary to that technology are our colouring technologies. We have our unique, patent-pending technology on colouring, which allows us to colour and smooth a part at the same time, so you can add colour while smoothing. That, then, also opens a whole variety of other applications.

On the other side, we’ve got our de-powdering systems, which, as I mentioned, we are currently trialling with some of our production partner companies. These allow us to automatically unpack the powder bed, de-powder, and remove the parts from powder bed AM systems.

Eventually we've got to tie it all together. We've got metrology, or inspection systems, that have been developed, in conjunction with the University of Nottingham, and the clever bits are actually in the algorithms and machine learning, not in the hardware. So they’re low cost, which means that we can use them in line with our systems and quality check parts as we go through our processes.

And then the final part is the end-to-end automation, which we call our digital manufacturing system — or DMS — which allows us to automate the entire process.

What does your recent investment round mean for the company going forward?

It's completely transformative. We've been a revenue generating company from the first year of our existence, which is really important, because it means there's a great product-market fit. So we're not developing things that are not needed.

What this funding allows us to do, is to accelerate our global growth. It allows us to finish off our facility in Austin and expand properly to the APAC market and in Europe.

But more importantly, this funding enables us to remain process agnostic, unlike other companies.

It was because we wanted to remain agnostic that we chose DSM as a materials chemical company. This gives us access to all the materials and chemistry expertise that they're renowned for on the traditional and additive manufacturing side, but, essentially it also allows us to drive towards a complete industrial AM ecosystem that can only benefit us.

But then on the other hand, we've got Foresight Group, Williams, which is a billion-pound VC. This gives us access to all of their materials chemistry, analytics expertise, Formula One engineering provenance of the last 50 years, plus all the data analytics, engineering costs, product optimisation, design optimisation, etc. Finally, Foresight Group gives us access to huge VC power capital markets.

Additionally, through the sales channels, it gives us a network of sales, marketing and potential distribution, which is ready to go. So, it really accelerates our journey to scale up.

What trends or developments excite you personally?

I’m excited that people are recognising post processing as an issue and want to do something about it. It's great to see post processing being taken seriously at last.

There are more post processing companies emerging into the AM sector now, and some will be here at Formnext. For me, that is actually a good thing, but it does indicate that among all of the 3D printing companies, there are only a few focused on post processing.

Awareness is growing, but still has a way to go and education is really imperative here. Because if you don't know about it, you don't know it's a problem. So we need to educate before we can sell, and also continue to educate ourselves in terms of what our users require for their developing applications.

The other exciting trend is that we're now seeing industrial players coming into the market, and I don't mean printer manufacturers, I mean users of the technology. So companies are genuinely looking for 3D printing applications and are now seriously considering 3D printing, and that's a great trend.

Ultimately, we need to focus on real-life applications - they may not be as exciting as PR-focused, high-profile applications, but they show that the industry is maturing.

I'll give you an analogy: when was the last time someone came to you and said, ’Look at this injection moulded part, just look how great it is’. You don't care, no one cares, it just doesn't matter. That's what we need to get out of our heads and just get on with the new technology. And the time will come when no one will know the difference. We've already started, and we show people by saying, ‘Look, this is an injection moulded part’, and they don't even blink. Then we show them a 3D-printed part that we have post-processed and they say, ‘Oh my God, that's amazing’. We need to get past that and be able to just accept it as another manufacturing technology.

What sets AMT apart within the AM sector?

AMT’s unique solutions for automated post processing combine market leading technology, machine learning capabilities, dedicated automation systems and superior research and production partnerships. This means that we do not offer just a process or just a machine, which is what you may find on other booths at Formnext. We are not offering a singular “one box” solution to the extensive challenge that post processing poses for current industrial AM users or those considering application development with AM. We are coming at this holistically and embracing the entire process chain equation. AMT’s Digital Manufacturing System exemplifies this perfectly, with a comprehensive solution that links all of the post processing stages together (unpacking, de-powdering, part finishing and inspection) through intelligent, digital connectivity and hardware to unlock the potential of AM for cost-effective, high volume applications across industry.

In addition, we believe that our post processing solutions offer the only industrial options with full workflow integration capabilities and full certification for the machines (UL & CE) and the underlying process (ISO 10993-5 (2009); ISO 10993-1 (2010); ISO 10993-12 (2012) and OECD TG 439).

What do the next 12 months look like for AMT?

The next 12 months will see very rapid growth, both in terms of our expansion and revenue.

We are introducing our end-to-end Digital Manufacturing System at Formnext this year, ahead of full commercialisation in 2020. The DMS will be the full realisation of our goals as it includes the de-powdering, smoothing, colouring and inspection stages of post processing — fully automated. And that's really our focus as we enter 2020, to fully link those elements together for AM users, and offer them an end-to-end post processing system in the truest sense of the phrase.



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