DSM’s Andrew Graves has spent over three decades in 3D printing. Starting at 3D Systems, continuing for Stratasys Direct Manufacturing and now with DSM, Graves has seen the market evolve significantly. He took on engineering, R&D and management roles, working in digital light processing (DLP) and stereolithography (SLA) mostly, but also fused deposition modeling (FDM) and sintering. His career encompasses the use, improvement, and industrialization of resins for 3D printing. Most of the time, Graves was the guy working with material scientists and customers to improve resin for many different applications. He is currently the Equipment Partnership Manager at DSM Additive, where he works together with 3D printer OEMs to develop new materials. We spoke to him about his three decades in 3D printing.
Graves thinks it strange that now he often sits at the table with startup founders who were born after he joined the 3D printing industry. When he started it was a question of trying to demonstrate that the technology, mostly called rapid prototyping at the time, worked.
“It was a brand new technology, and most of our work was missionary work. No one knew what it could do, how useful it was and what it could be used for. It was an exciting time,” Graves said.
He was at 3D Systems for a total of 13 years. During that time he performed application support, service, installations, and later R&D in resins and powders. He then joined Solid Concepts, which he’d seen grow from a tiny firm to a sizable one and would be later bought by Stratasys.
Between that time and around 2011, it was a more sedate period in 3D printing, where the technology grew in acceptance. Then came the period when “young people started companies” and “the smaller filament printers exploded in use ….and the world discovered 3D printing.” Now, is yet another exciting time as this same world “moves into production, manufacturing, reliability.”
At DSM, he is a part of growing the ecosystem in 3D printing. He thinks that the best path forward is for open systems. “Especially in manufacturing, you want options. You want open. When you buy an injection mold machine, you want to run what you want to run on it. And, for 3D printing you want different materials and an open system architecture,” Graves said.
His job now mainly consists of helping to develop new, more functional materials and work with companies to implement them for all sorts of applications. “I believe in partnerships that give the customer the full solution that they need: printers, software and materials—covering all that the customer needs for the application.”
As well as performing customer and OEM visits, “I get to play with a lot of printers and measure a lot of parts for accuracy and low shrinkage,” Graves said.
What’s new for DSM is that, along with SLA, the company is offering more and more DLP and LED resins. With more focus on different wavelengths and light sources, they’ll have a broader portfolio. Even though he knows that desktop SLA is growing rapidly, the company’s focus is on manufacturing and larger systems for now. Overall, their universe has gotten a lot bigger with “over sixty companies that now provide materials for SLA and DLP and over 170 startups” in the space. He points out that most of the resins are commoditized and few players are working on application-specific and really breakthrough products. Most resins are also just “acrylate based and not things like acrylate urethanes” or materials that “have two photoinitiators and two materials to enable the printing of larger parts.”
For DLP and the desktop, he really sees that a change in materials will be needed to “improve process accuracy and reduce distortion in parts or we’ll have the same distortions, curling and shrinkage problems that we had in SLA before.” The answer to this is “hybrid resins that are acrylate and epoxy ,with those two chemicals and two photoinitiatiors working together to improve outcomes.” He sees these blends as being able to solve the problems of the emerging desktop and new SLA and LCD industrial systems in part size and quality.
“Shrinkage is your enemy, but we’ve done a lot of development work on this already, so we know how to avoid problems like this and achieve repeatability through porting our technology to new wavelengths,” Graves said. “This is far from simple, especially when you’re working in manufacturing where accuracy and flatness are required. There’s no sense to compete directly with most of the market but rather to bring out resins for that market with an advantage in their technology, price or functionality.”
“Our Somos Quick Gen 500 is an example of a material that is not only a low-cost resin, but it post-processes quickly and prints fast as well. It also has good elongation, is flexible, has good spring back, but it’s stiffer than elastomers,” Graves said. That kind of an application-filling resin could be a lot of company’s internal “draft” resin or could enable new production cases in very specific use cases. By working on developing multiple qualities the firm is betting that feature-rich photopolymers will attract loyal customers.
Another example is the recently launched Somos Watershed Black, “which brings true piano blacks to a popular SLA resin that has good clarity, accuracy along with low moisture uptake.” Quicker to print than other black resins it has real advantages in applications such as automotive prototypes and housings for consumer electronics. Another exciting area is their work in biocompatible resins for SLA and DLP for the bioprinting and medical markets.
On the whole, good qualities that he seeks out for resins that deliver on final part qualities are “repeatability, good sidewalls, good accuracy, good surface finish.” Graves added, “You can use any printer to make a shape but it is difficult to make a functional part with good process accuracy. Open companies like Origin are a great example. These firms coupled with software and materials is the way to move into manufacturing.” He likes that desktop SLA printers are growing the market and giving young people access to the technology. Several resins would work well on desktop systems and they want to do more with desktop printers in the future.
Famously, DSM has an application focus and “finding those verticals that can benefit most from AM in aerospace and automotive” while navigating regulations and compliance has been a big part of his job. He’s also very excited about connectors, electrical components, medical generally, as well as manufacturing. But, the right materials are not the only challenge. Graves is also trying to work with all the major post-processing companies where he sees gains for 3D printing to be had. “Automated part removal, new build platform insertion, automated post-processing, automated support removal require another combination of the right materials with the right print technology and automation.”
The biggest changes he has seen is in just how manufacturing ready the technology is now “with parts that I can throw at a wall and have higher HDT’s.” Accuracy and the range of materials has really increased. Now, he’s also seeing people reinvent old processes and bring to market completely new technologies and machines. He thinks that SLA and other vat polymerization technologies have a laser-bright future:
“What other technology can make one-meter by half-a-meter parts with good mechanical properties, a beautiful surface finish, that you can drop into a car or prototype. It’s SLA, the most beautiful technology,” Graves concluded.
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