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Ulendo Receives $250K NSF Grant for 3D Printing Calibration Software

INTAMSYS industrial 3d printing

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One of the common challenges with fused filament 3D printers is vibration. Running printers at high speeds often leads to excessive vibrations, which can generate low-quality prints with surface defects, parts detaching from the build plate, layer shifting, and ringing or ghosting. To avoid these issues, users tend to reduce the printing speed or mechanically alter the printer with vibration dampening parts, but all this means more hours to produce an item and increases printer cost and weight. A solution to this problem could lie in vibration compensation software.

To address the technology’s production challenges, Ulendo, a spinoff company from the University of Michigan (UM), has developed a flagship software that could help speed up 3D printing by regulating vibrations. To accelerate the technical development of their patented software algorithm called filtered B-splines (FBS) and reduce the time to market, Ulendo recently announced it received a $250,000 research grant from America’s Seed Fund, a program within the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Ulendo was born out of the Mechatronics program at the University of Michigan. Image courtesy of Ulendo via Twitter.

Born out of the Mechatronics Program at UM, the Ulendo Software team is on a path to make 3D printers better and faster to spur their software from a niche product and to realize its full potential. In 2017, researchers with the Smart and Sustainable Automation Research Lab (S2A Lab) at UM’s College of Engineering developed the FBS algorithm. Since then, the team launched a Kickstarter campaign in December 2020 to raise funds for its software solution.

Even though the project failed to reach the $25,000 goal by the end date, the campaign drew the attention of several original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) that hope to integrate Ulendo into their suite of products – both current and future. The customized firmware, originally expected to be delivered to users starting May 2021 for five printer models – including Original Prusa i3, Lulzbot Taz 6, and Creality CR-6 – will hopefully still move forward thanks to the new NSF grant.

Ulendo is a software add-on for FDM 3D printers that can be downloaded onto a small single-chip computer and connected to a 3D printer via a USB interface. Image courtesy of Ulendo via Twitter.

So, how does Ulendo work? According to UM graduate research assistant Nosa Edoimioya, the team first experimentally obtains a mathematical model of a particular FDM 3D printer called a calibration map. Then, they put that map into Ulendo to design a controller. The controller’s job is to compensate for the 3D printer’s vibrations using the calibration map information. The best part is that since Ulendo knows how the printer will vibrate, it can account for that by slightly changing the commanded motions while maintaining high quality at much higher speeds, suggested Edoimioya.

Ulendo is a cloud-based software add-on for FDM 3D printers that can be downloaded onto a small single-chip computer – like the Raspberry Pi, and connected to a 3D printer via a USB interface. Open-source firmware is installed on both the Raspberry Pi and 3D printer to facilitate this connection. The user uploads their G-code to a web interface connected to a cloud platform running Ulendo. Then, Ulendo processes the G-code to calculate stepper motor commands sent to Raspberry Pi over a wireless internet connection. From there, they are sent to the printer.

By providing a vibration compensation feature, the Ulendo team reports that its cloud-based 3D printing software increases print speed up to two times without sacrificing print quality and producing less waste. To demonstrate the effectiveness of Ulendo, the researchers printed a sample part based on the “Baby Groot” character, a fan-favorite from the movie “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. II.”

In the printout, the lovable anthropomorphic tree is lodged in a small boat that is typically used as a benchmark part for 3D printing and has been named “Benchy.” The “Baby Groot in a Benchy” Ulendo-printed part was compared with the same part printed with standard parameters on a Lulzbot Taz 6 device. As stated in a white paper published by the startup’s founders, the Ulendo “Baby Groot” boasts a 63% decrease in print time and achieves similar quality: while the standard print took 8.36 hours, the Ulendo layered the part was done in 3.12 hours.

Currently, the team of researchers works with OEMs in the desktop 3D printing industry to provide native support for their solutions, with plans to roll out Ulendo with the OEM partners and eventually to have Ulendo be a standard feature for all 3D printers rather than just an add-on. The NSF award’s funding will allow the team to advance work on a rapid calibration kit that is expected to shorten the lead time necessary to expand the list of compatible devices.

One of the company’s stretch goals is to work with the Ultimaker ecosystem, starting with the Ultimaker 3. However, making their platform compatible with this particular 3D printer brand will require significant customization not currently needed for the models they are working on, stated the company. The new funds will most likely accelerate the move to Ultimaker 3D printers as part of Ulendo’s target goal, which is to allow machines to achieve their full potential while ensuring excellent part quality in the process.

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