Germany-based EOS, a global technology provider for industrial 3D printing of metals and plastics, has installed two automated powder removal systems developed by additive manufacturing (AM) post-processing solutions specialist Solukon Maschinenbau to improve the efficiency of its part-building process chain. With the installation of the two Smart Powder Recuperation (SPR) technology machines at its facilities in Krailling and Maisach, near Munich, EOS will ensure that the powder removal process of large parts is easier, more efficient, and requires minimal maintenance from its operators, resulting in cleaner parts and more sustainable manufacturing processes.
Between the two locations, EOS operates approximately 50 metal AM systems for testing, application development, and printing of demo parts for customers, making it one of the largest operation centers of metal AM systems in the world. Until the acquisition of the two Solukon systems, initial metal powder removal was done by using EOS modules, typically followed by industrial vacuum cleaners for additional powder removal. However, the time involved in the process had proven unproductive for EOS, it would often take many hours of work to get all of the powder cleaned out, and it became a frustrating task for employees.
The powder removal process in all EOS machines had been a headache for the company. Vacuumed excess powders had to be scrapped due to contamination concerns, and for the remaining powder, in particular, the one trapped in internal channels, the partially cleaned build plate was placed in a blasting cabinet where the powder was manually blown out of difficult places using compressed air. According to EOS, there were key needs for powder removal that needed addressing, such as deep cleaning of all areas of the part and documentable and repeatable part cleaning protocols. Instead, Solukon made powder removal easy and automated.
“The most important factor is saving time and labor cost. Setting the automated system to remove the powder means that the employee is free to perform other tasks while the system is operating,” said Michael Shellabear, EOS’s Director of IP and Technical Services, and responsible for the management of the internal printing capabilities at EOS. “Use of the Solukon system also results in improved cleaning of parts, especially complicated parts with internal channels that trap unfused powder that needs to be removed.”
EOS is currently operating two SFM-AT800-S Solukon systems and is already considering purchasing a third. The company claims its employees are now more satisfied and less frustrated than when they were performing manual cleaning. Solukon’s SPR technology provides a safe and airtight environment where controllable vibration frees powder from even the most stubborn internal channels, according to the company.
The system collects unused powder for reuse in the process, in line with evolving AM sustainability efforts, as recovering unused powder can result in environmental and economic efficiencies, especially when using expensive powder alloys. For the more reactive materials, like aluminum and titanium, Solukon provides an inert operating environment. The part cleaning process is programmable and repeatable and can be customized for material type and part geometry. Heavy parts of up to 300 kg can be easily manipulated in the larger Solukon units, while smaller systems can handle parts weighing up to 60 kg.
“Our complete line of powder removal and processing systems was developed after listening closely to what users of metal AM systems are telling us,” said Andreas Hartmann, CEO and Co-founder of Solukon. “We develop systems for both metal and plastic powders that take the concern out of powder removal. Our automated systems reduce manufacturing costs, while adhering to the highest levels of safety. We are delighted that EOS, a leader in AM, has chosen to express their commitment to the industrialization of AM through the adoption of our systems in their metal AM manufacturing operations.”
There are several key needs that have to be addressed when it comes to powder removal, mainly saving time and labor costs. EOS has particularly indicated that potential customers investing in AM equipment for production purposes have inquired about post-processing costs. This comes as no surprise, as experts have estimated that post-processing can represent up to 60% of the overall cost for each AM part – depending on the application.
As if the cost wasn’t enough of a setback, a 2019 report by AM market research firm SmarTech Analysis suggested that metal AM post-processing has long been considered the most time-intensive part of the AM workflow. Even more expensive and time-consuming than the printing process itself. Many companies today still go about this manually, which is slow and can lead to inaccurate finished parts. Instead, automated post-processing systems, like Solukon’s, offer a better solution to remove powders, particularly from some of the complex geometries achievable through metal AM.
As post-processing costs become a more important factor in the entire cost of the process chain, EOS customers are asking more and more questions about peripheral processes, such as powder removal, said the company’s Periphery and Automation Project Manager, Dominik Hertle. He also highlighted that EOS is looking to encourage and facilitate the development of peripheral processes and automation through collaborations with innovative companies that specialize in these areas, such as Solukon.
Working towards the development of the AM segment into a fully mature manufacturing modality, EOS expects customers, both new and current, to experience Solukon’s SPR solutions at the company’s customer and technology center in Krailling. As Hertle said, “we lead by example,” adopting and demonstrating how cutting edge technologies and best manufacturing practices can make operations more efficient.
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