Finland-based company Etteplan offers solutions for industrial equipment and plant engineering, as well as software and embedded solutions, to manufacturing companies around the world. In addition to additive manufacturing, some of the many other services Etteplan offers include automation and robotics, digital twins, plant, safety, and systems engineering, electronics design and cybersecurity, software test automation, and digital product content. All of these services are focused on helping the company’s customers improve their engineering processes, products, and services, and Etteplan seems to be doing pretty well for itself with this strategy, bringing in roughly €236 million last year.
Recently, the company collaborated with industrial metal and 3D printing polymer supplier EOS in a major breakthrough – the two companies have successfully 3D printed metal objects with electronics embedded inside. This is notable since while it is easy to embed electronics in FDM parts it has been difficult to do this in Powder Bed Fusion, especially in metal powder bed fusion. With FDM you can simply pause a print and put in place a part that you can then print over even. With PBF the temperatures, fluctuation in powder quality and things like the inert gas environment you need to print have made it difficult.
“Industrial 3D printing of metal is not a new thing, as various parts of industrial production equipment are already being 3D-printed around the world,” Tero Leppänen, Director from Etteplan’s Software and Embedded Solutions service area, said in a company press release. “Additionally, electronics can be placed inside the 3D printed objects, when they are made of plastic, for example. Metal powder-bed fusion printing (PBF), on the other hand, requires such high temperatures that the electronics have not been able to withstand it. Now we have succeeded in keeping the electronics in good working order even when 3D-printed in metal.”
This capability of 3D printing metal parts with embedded electronics has a lot of great potential for use in the manufacturing industry, and can actually help make mass production a real possibility.
The first 3D printed demo device the partnering companies created, which was presented to the public last week in Helsinki at the Technology 19 event, features an integrated circuit board, and the embedded electronics are sensors that track acceleration, air humidity, air pressure, and temperature. The 3D printed part’s metal shell is used as an antenna. Until now, a solution like this would have been considered extremely difficult, or even impossible, to complete using traditional methods of manufacturing. But 3D printing, as we should know by now, can often turn the impossible into the possible.
There are many different potential use cases for 3D printed metal parts and components that contain embedded electronics; for example, applications where it’s challenging to place sensors. In addition, this capability would be very helpful in difficult operating conditions where sensors may not be able to hold up well on their own volition.
Vesa Saastamoinen, Project Manager at Etteplan, said, “One example is a lifting hook, which may include sensors in the future. The sensors notify increased weight, track fatigue, and measure external forces. This data can then be used to predict the need for maintenance or to estimate the device’s lifespan.”
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