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Additive manufacturing (AM), which is more commonly known as three-dimensional (3D) printing, has created limitless possibilities for the development and production of 3D objects. Through the use of a digital file, 3D printing technologies are able to create pristine 3D objects that have subsequently attracted the attention from a variety of industries including automobiles, electronics and food industries. The digital design, which is otherwise referred to as the Computer Aided Design (CAD) file, is generated through the use of 3D scanners or modeling software1. Despite its potential use in many different industries, the commercialization of AM technologies would require both automation and simplification of the workflow to be achieved for the design, engineering, and manufacturing of all involved components.
The Scope of Automated 3D Printing
AM experts predict that a majority of industrial 3D printers will incorporate automation within the next decade. As a result, these industries will not only reduce the need for skilled operators to constantly monitor the machinery; but will also significantly reduce the overall cost associated with completing these processes. The revenue for automated 3D printing is estimated to be $11.2 billion USD by the end of 20272. Over the last several years, several major industrial companies have incorporated AM technology into their production chain; there, the automation of 3D printing will streamline the workflow in these and future applied industries from the supply of materials and any required post-processing techniques through interconnected robotic electronic systems2.
Automation in AM Manufacturing
Several companies have already adapted the new wave of products that are created by 3D printing. For example, Voodoo manufacturing has recently launched a 3D printer factory that will be used to produce both major and minor parts that can be easily assembled post-print3. Through the use of MakerBot replicators, Voodoo has successfully designed a workflow that is capable of automating the 3D printing process. Furthermore, this company recently launched “Project Skywalker,” which involved the incorporation of much larger N2 plus systems into the workflow that will ultimately lead to a highly efficient and automated 3D printing process for the company3. In doing so, Project Skywalker involves the use of a low cost UR10 robotic arm that is situated next to the conveyor belt to remove prints from the machines within a single cell and ultimately deposit the objects onto the conveyor belt until they reach the next fresh bed within the system. As a result of this process, cells are able to successfully and autonomously operation 24/7 without requiring any human intervention in the process3. Once the printing process has been completed, Voodoo’s employees will collect the batch of parts the 3D printer carryout any required post-processing and shipping procedures3.
Stratasys is another company that is currently utilizing a continuous build 3D demonstrator that consists of a series of fused deposition modeling (FDM) 3D printers that produce batches of parts by 3D printing3. The most unique aspect of Stratasys’ system is its technology that features automatic queue management, which enables the printing job to be taken over by another printer if the assigned printer fails or has a malfunction3.
To streamline their design to the manufacturing process, Siemens has integrated AM technology from Materialise into Siemens’ NX software in 20174. NX is an extensively used software that is used to design various products in a variety of industries including automobiles, aircraft, marine vessels, medical devices, machinery, and consumer products4. On the other hand, Materialise 3D Print Suite facilitates the end part manufacturing by 3D printing, a process which includes both power bed fusion and material jetting4. By combining the Materialise Lattice and Siemens’ NX software, these companies were able to create accurate and complete CAD models for powder bed fusion and material jetting 3D printing processes4.
Previously, AM processes required manufacturers to work with two separate systems that individually focused on product design and 3D printing design4. As a result of this two-step process, AM manufacturing often required a significant amount of time to be completed, while also being subjected to various potential errors as a result of data translation issues and an overall lack of associativity that existed between these two systems.
Newly developed 3D printing software is now capable of supporting structure design, 3D nesting, build tray preparation and build processors framework technology for AM4. As a result, errors in data translation and conversions have been significantly reduced, while also reducing the amount of time consumed from the completed product design to print the final 3D model by approximately 30 percent. In fact, the changes that have been made in digital product design models are automatically reflected in the final 3D printed products4. These companies are optimistic that such automation will enable AM’s evolution from prototyping to a commercial manufacturing technology.
- “What is 3D Printing?” – 3DPrinting.com
- “3D Printing Automation: $11.2bn Market by 2027” – 3D Natives
- “Automated 3D Printing: How Industrial Additive Manufacturing is Evolving” – Engineering.com
- “Siemens, Materialise Technology aims to streamline product design through 3D Printing” – Manufacturing Automation