3D printing is often called a disruptive technology, and many players in the industry are focused on bringing additive manufacturing into actual manufacturing, leveraging the benefits of this young, agile technology for production. Manufacturing represents a $12 trillion global industry, and additive manufacturing is poised to bring new capabilities alongside traditional techniques to create a new standard of faster, better scale production. To date, 3D printing has been held back from a larger impact on manufacturing due to several major factors — time, cost, and final part quality key among these. Today, a new technology emerges from stealth as Stratasys spinoff Evolve Additive Solutions is ready to introduce its completely new production-scale additive manufacturing solution to the market.
Selective Thermoplastic Electrophotographic Process (STEP), as Evolve dubs its technology, is set to truly bring 3D printing into manufacturing at scale — with speeds up to 50 times faster than the current fastest process (High Speed Sintering, HSS) and full isotropic properties in all dimensions, matching the quality and surpassing the price and speed points of injection molding.
The STEP story began in 2009, as Evolve Additive Solutions CEO Steve Chillscyzn and Chief Business and Marketing Officer Bruce Bradshaw explained when we spoke last week. The team had been intentionally flying under the radar, but as they’re ready to talk now, they have quite a story to share.
Born at Stratasys, STEP was built from its beginnings as a process targeted specifically at manufacturing. Bradshaw noted that the development project began when, in 2009, Chillscyzn and Scott Crump — the inventor of Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) technology — sat down and asked a seemingly simple question:
“If we made a system for manufacturing, what would it look like?”
As the brainstorming began, they sought input from many users of additive manufacturing and those in the business of scale manufacturing. The conclusion they reached was that there simply was not an additive manufacturing technology out there capable of production volumes and quality. And so, Bradshaw continued, the team “scoured the globe for technologies suited for manufacturing.”
This search, he continued, sent Chillscyzn “on a journey of developing a technology we’re referring to as the first in 20 years that’s new to additive.” He was quick to point out that this designation was not intended to take anything away from other more recent entrants introducing unique 3D printing technologies to the market, but noted that STEP is completely unlike anything else available today, not a “takeoff from existing technologies.” Evolve set about with a mission — to introduce 3D printing for manufacturing — and built their system from the ground up, not revamping or rethinking other industrial technologies.
“We started working with this technology in the lab, seeing if we could do it, back in 2009,” Chillscyzn told me.
“We started to put dollars at it in 2011. Working with it in the lab since 2011 to late last year gave us the ability to really understand the science and the technology… This is very complex; this is production manufacturing using additive manufacturing.”
Focusing squarely on the needs for manufacturing, not prototyping, the team determined certain frames of cost, throughput, and mechanical properties as a starting point for their system to become competitive with injection molding. The examination period extended through 2016, studying feasibility and the science of how, why, and where the concept would work.
In the beginning of 2017, conversations with the board of Stratasys turned to how to continue to progress this new technology. Ultimately the decision was made, as investment and commercialization became a focus, to spin out Evolve into its own entity, separating STEP from the large public company.
“Really it was June 30/July 1 of last year that we spun Evolve out,” Chillscyzn continued. “It was a subsidiary over the last year, and we further spun out over the last month. Now Stratasys is a minority holder; we’re a private company now, mostly held by the management board. This has been an internal project for many years, then moving to spin out so Stratasys can stay focused on its core and this group can focus on science, funding, deals, in our own time frame.”
In a statement, Stratasys CEO Ilan Levin said of Evolve Additive Solutions:
“As an independent company, Evolve will best be able to focus on the advancement of the technology, provide the entrepreneurial environment and management equity incentives suitable for early stage efforts and drive the customer relationships and partnerships to foster further development and initial market adoption. As an equity stakeholder, we look forward to collaborating with Evolve and supporting this initiative to help make it a success.”
Speaking with Chillscyzn and Bradshaw, we took a step-by-step look at STEP. The benchmark, both underscored throughout, is injection molding, and getting cycle times for this additive process comparable to those seen in traditional technologies.
“The result of that development project is a technology 50 times faster than the fastest on the market now, which is HSS,” Bradshaw noted.
Pitting its speed for comparison against other additive manufacturing technologies is a helpful way for the growing 3D printing industry to understand just how novel this technology is — but that comparison isn’t the one Evolve Additive Solutions is really making. The comparison is truly intended to be with traditional manufacturing, bringing additive manufacturing into a whole new playing field through scale.
Bradshaw noted that there are five primary qualities that must be considered for a technology to be thought of as a “true manufacturing technology,” factors that “bubbled to the top with each company we talked to” in doing due diligence on market conditions during the feasibility study. “If you have three of them, that’s great, but is limited on the manufacturing side,” Bradshaw explained; covering all five is key. As he detailed, these categories include:
- Engineering-grade thermoplastics with isotropic properties. The Achilles heel often in AM is Z-direction; because of layer lines and processes, strength in Z-direction is limited. Evolve has isotropic properties in all three directions, key as a requirement for manufacturing.
- Seeing as much as 50% of the build envelope dedicated to the building of support structures generates significant waste; with STEP, about 95% of support material is reusable.
- Cycle times comparable to injection molding for low-volume runs, with the ability to get a finished part with minimal post-processing. The only requirement at that end is support removal; after removing supports, the product is finished.
- Part performance on par with injection molding: “We are in that category, on par.”
- Not on day one, but a future development will be a full spectrum of colors, bringing in CMYK to process color, “much like you would get in catalog printing on the 2D side.”
- Multiple materials in a single build, such as a high-strength material and a soft material. An example of this would be an armrest, where the bulk of the build needs to be rigid, but the outer 10-15 layers or so require a softer touch.
- This scalable system was built from the ground up for manufacturing, and “needs to integrate from a hardware and software perspective,” functioning in as hands-free a method as possible and integrating into an existing production facility.
- A future concept for the system takes its cue from injection molding in having “parts drop out of the end, out of the post-processing system to remove supports, into a bin, like injection molding does.”
- On the software side, integration will be versatile as the Evolve Additive Solutions team envisions functionality for “someone progressive with the Internet of Things and the cloud” as well as someone using Oracle, Siemens NX, or other familiar software. “The thought is not having them have to run a completely different set of software; they should be able to use the machine and have it monitor things like progress and material usage the way they do today.”
- For people to consider for manufacturing, cost has to be comparable with injection molding. Exact figures for the system and materials were not disclosed.
Unsurprisingly, for the innovative new technology, a good deal of the detail features into what Bradshaw referred to as the “secret sauce.” The top half of the machine is a 2D imagine engine, developed jointly by Kodak and Heidelberg, that the Evolve team is leveraging as a starting point, featuring customization in its electronics and hardware in a scalable system. Current system specs include a 24 x 13 x 6 inch build envelope, working with ABS and soluble support materials to 600 dpi dimensional accuracy. Minimum feature size is at a 42 micron voxel size, with layer height of .001 to .003 inches and a 22 micron particle size.
A case study with Vistatek points to a notable improvement in using STEP to create a 2,000 part run of an ABS bracket, comparing results to injection molding. Stats provided from Vistatek’s experience include:
Industrial Fiber Optic Manufacturer Injection Molding Stats
- Mold Cost = $2,000
- Time to Mold Creation: 2-8 weeks
- Cycle time = 25 seconds per part
- Cost Per Part = $2.64 (Part cost includes amortization of the mold)
- Est. time to 2000 parts = 2-8 weeks
- 768 parts per build
- 3 hour build
- Cycle time = 14 seconds per part
- Cost Per part = $1.38
- Est. time to 2000 parts = 1 day
This case study was a direct apples-to-apples comparison of exactly the same traditional part and geometry. Working with more complex parts that can take advantage of the benefits of topology optimization and other aspects viable through design for additive manufacture (DfAM) could quickly enhance the positioning of STEP’s additive manufacturing capabilities as compared to injection molding.
Further positioning Evolve’s system for use in manufacturing is its capacity for automation. Real-time monitoring allows for any flawed layers to be skipped, as each layer is inspected prior to bonding, as envisioned for future work with STEP. As Bradshaw pointed out, this monitoring is key particularly in the medical and aerospace markets, where flaws are not acceptable. Additionally, the system features bulk material feed and quality assurance and predictive quality control for hands-free manufacturing.
“The market potential is — I don’t want to say endless, but because we’re using engineering-grade thermoplastics, there are many market possibilities,” Bradshaw continued, as we discussed potential applications.
“We talked to many companies, in automotive and other spaces, names you would know, and they said that many projects are brought to the table as a design concept that never gets produced. It never gets beyond the table. We’re referring to this as ‘unmet traditional.’ We’re told there are hundreds of these projects every year, and that this system would allow them to test market more than they do today.”
Among the benefits he sees Evolve’s process bringing to the table in helping to bring more ideas beyond the drawing board are the capabilities of mass customization, producing composites, reducing assemblies, and other “traditional values you get from additive manufacturing.”
STEP is intended to “augment and compete in the injection molding market.”
“If we feel we can get a sliver of injection molding, we’ll be very successful from a business perspective,” Bradshaw noted.
Through its unique build technology, STEP allows for fully isotropic, fully dense parts, which removes concerns often found regarding porosity in additive manufacturing. Bradshaw likened the process to “micro injection molding” on a layer-by-layer basis.
While quite a lot has happened since the idea’s origins in 2009, it’s all about looking ahead now for Evolve. As development accelerates, the company is now looking to align with companies that have similar goals, seeking beta partners in 2019, as well as looking for investors.
“Usually the first question we get is about the technology,” Chillscyzn noted.
“It is so new, a different approach, that it takes people by surrprise. A lot of people don’t know what electrophotographic process is — but they do know, it’s just not something they say every day. It’s a fancy word for your laser printer, the same one you have on your desk. This technology has been around for almost 80 years; we’re just leveraging that technology as an imaging section, which gives us a lot of versatility: versatility in materials, a wide range of them, and also being able to do multiple materials. The upper stage, where we’re printing the image, we’re leveraging technology that’s been available for 80 years, and this press out of Kodak that’s been around for 20 years. We’ve hired people who know that machine very well. The part building stage, the lower half, is leveraging a couple of other other technologies that exist, all in a very innovative way.”
As one of the co-inventors of these innovative ways, Chillscyzn is deeply familiar with the entire setup that offers high-speed, volume additive manufacturing. The lower portion of the machine is the “magic sauce” from Evolve, all a proprietary invention from Chillscyzn and his team — and all focused on realistic production-capable additive manufacturing.
“The whole goal of the whole program, the whole mission, is to make production AM parts in volume. We do not do anything that’s prototyping-related; while these machines are very capable of prototyping, it’s just a focus. Everyone needs a focus corporate-wise, and ours happens to be production,” he continued.
“Versatility and capability to get to cost per part, and the quality of injection molding, with the throughput needed for production — that’s it in a nutshell.”
The nutshell makes the technology perhaps a tough nut to crack, with nearly a decade of stealth progress behind it and proprietary processes powering it, but the goals are immediately accessible. Chillscyzn explained as we spoke that Evolve is truly a manufacturing company first. With its viable solutions already in place, such as that seen in the Vistatek case study, there is plenty to differentiate the company from “the other 250 additive technologies out there,” as Chillscyzn put it: “They’re more prototyping from a DNA perspective. We’re manufacturing in our DNA.”
Ensuring that the manufacturing following ‘additive’ takes center stage, Evolve Additive Solutions is well poised to introduce STEP to the world today.
Viewing not other 3D printing companies, but injection molding and traditional manufacturing, as the competition — as the opportunity — Evolve is ready to take its place side-by-side with complementary technologies to push manufacturing into its next stages for thermoplastics.
Initial focuses in the near term will be on developing partnerships related to hardware, automation, and materials; placing alpha machines; and looking for beta customers for 2019. Anticipated general availability has not yet been announced. Learn more about Evolve here.
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