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How Additive Achieves the Next Era of Innovation: Automated Post-Printing

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PostProcess Technologies CEO Jeff Mize will be speaking at 3DPrint.com’s upcoming AMS online industry summit (Feb 9-10, 2021), for which PostProcess is the Automation & Software vertical Sponsor. Register for the event here

Considering the world’s growing demand for dynamic manufacturing methods, it should come as no surprise that the additive manufacturing (AM) market is looking forward to exponential growth in the coming years. According to reports from the “AM Market Data Service” published by SmarTech Analysis, revenues of the worldwide additive manufacturing (AM) industry reached an impressive $2.12B in Q3 2020, having grown from $1.88 billion in Q2 2020. These numbers include revenues from hardware, materials, and outsourced print services. As additive technologies advance, the demand for 3D printing has gained traction in sectors like aerospace, dental, and medical. While AM facilitates flexible part design and rapid reproduction, several limitations inhibit the ability of individual additive workflows to scale for production volume manufacturing.

Undeniably, the high costs of machines, raw materials, and technician training somewhat restrict the adoption of AM. Additionally, the Additive Manufacturing for Production 2020 Survey Report by TCT in association with Altair reports that cost justification is nearly unanimously the most significant challenge for users looking to adopt additive for production. When it comes to established workflows though, a chronic inhibitor of rapid production scaling is the third and final step; post-printing. While 3D part design and printing is a highly digitalized process, post-printing methods are often much more archaic in comparison, and highly laborious. Be it water jets, sandblasters, submersion tanks, or even handheld tools like squeeze bottles, brushes, and sandpaper, traditional post-print methods create obtrusive bottlenecks in otherwise highly efficient processes.

To gain user insight into these aforementioned post-printing issues, PostProcess Technologies ran industry surveys and subsequently released the tabulated results in the 2020 Annual 3D Post-Printing Trends Survey Report. Though respondents were cited using a variety of print technologies, 84% reported using at least one of the four most popular technologies; Material Extrusion, Material Jetting, Powder Bed Fusion, and/or Vat Photopolymerization. Interestingly enough, those using the latter two methods (Powder Bed Fusion and Vat Photopolymerization) are closest to production scale adoption, but these users also have the most concerns with skilled labor expenditures on post-printing.

Tackling Additive at Production Scale: Focus on Vat Photopolymerization

Taking a closer look at Vat Photopolymerization as an example, it’s clear why respondents are concerned that excessive use of labor poses issues for sustainably printing at production volumes. Vat Photopolymerization technologies like stereolithography (SLA), continuous liquid interface production (CLIP), and digital light processing (DLP) are notorious for their tedious and cumbersome post-printing methods. Traditionally, removing resin from SLA, DLP, and CLIP parts is reliant on multiple rounds of chemical baths, composed of highly flammable and hazardous solvents like isopropyl alcohol or triphenylmethyl. In addition to causing hazardous and even unsafe working conditions (consider the heightened risk of environmental hazards, health risks, etc.), these resin removal methods are tedious, and therefore quick to cause delays in additive workflows.

Acknowledging that one of the most challenging aspects of effective resin removal is targeting the non-polymerized oligomers of the resin without affecting the polymer itself, PostProcess Technologies has pioneered the world’s first automated solutions for additive support and resin removal. The solutions leverage the company’s patented Submersed Vortex Cavitation (SVC)  technology, specifically developed for polymer-based print technologies. SVC utilizes agitation algorithms controlled by software to expediently remove excess resin, ensure consistency, and prevent part damage. The technology works in-tandem with PostProcess’s proprietary chemistry to provide a safer working environment and longer lifespan than other solvents. Overall, this solution significantly reduces the amount of both time and money that must be allocated towards the resin removal process, allowing technicians to focus on more value-enhancing tasks.

Automating Resin Removal: Case Studies in Scale Up

The list of users benefitting from a PostProcess automated solution is ever-growing and includes service bureaus like Empire Group (based out of Attleboro, Massachusetts) as well as PrintParts (based out of Manhattan, New York). Even though Empire Group has functioned to provide faster prototype delivery times to their clients since 1999, they found themselves facing increasingly impairing bottlenecks in their SLA resin removal process as the company expanded.  As business boomed and the number of in-house printers increased, it became clear that the amount of time spent on resin removal would as well. By implementing the PostProcess DEMI 800 (which leverages SVC technology and PostProcess resin removal chemistries) Empire has realized an average 50% decrease in resin removal times, allowing them to direct their energy on more value-added, augmented tasks like quoting out orders, performing maintenance, build tray optimization, and more.

Having utilized FormLabs SLA printers for some time now, dealing with resin removal is nothing new to New York City service bureau PrintParts. However, following a recent lab expansion for COVID-19 emergency production, PrintParts has scaled their operation tenfold with several DLP EnvisionTec printers. As the bureau got to work manufacturing over 1 million nasopharyngeal (NP) COVID-19 test applicators for New York State, they quickly realized that to reach quotas at their desired pace, they would need to automate their workflow as much as possible without bringing in full-on robotics. The PostProcess DEMI 800 was decided upon as a future-proof investment that would not only make their emergency production endeavor possible, but allow increased throughput for their existing SLA production, as well. Speaking to the throughput that the PostProcess solution enabled, co-founder and Head of Partnerships Cody Burke said, “The swabs are very small, so it’s easy to knock the resin off. It only took about 90 seconds with the ultrasonics – the combination of detergent and the ultrasonics – and that would’ve been about 12 minutes in IPA, so for speed comparison, it was a huge benefit. On a typical day when we were in peak production, about 8,000 swabs would pass through the DEMI 800 in a day, and that’s about half an hour of DEMI 800 time, versus the four hours it would have taken to do the equivalent amount in IPA.”

Conclusion

As additive manufacturing continues to grow in popularity across numerous markets and technologies like Vat Photopolymerization and Powder Bed Fusion creep closer to production, it’s become increasingly clear that modernizing post-printing is essential to scale. In order to address this hurdle, post-printing must be approached with a transformative solution matching the automation and versatility inherent to the design and build steps of 3D printing. Digitalization of the tribal knowledge native to post-printing is required, thus enabling customer-ready parts to be produced with increased throughput, consistency, and productivity. This is especially true for AM to scale in markets such as aerospace, where stringent quality standards exist. Additionally, the Industry 4.0 concept / factory floor of the future cannot be achieved without the digital thread extending to the post-print step. Thinking holistically about the AM process, along with continued cross-market collaboration and innovation, will lead the AM industry to the promised land.

To learn more about PostProcess’s automated solutions for 3D post-printing, visit their website at www.postprocess.com.

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