Additive Manufacturing Strategies

Festo and Solukon Partner for Automated Depowdering of Metal 3D Printed Parts

ST Medical Devices

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Robotics firm Festo has partnered with Solukon to develop a solution for the automated depowdering of metal 3D printed parts. The solution will build upon Solukon’s existing Smart Powder Recuperation (SPR) technology, which turn and vibrate metal 3D printed parts to shake off excess powder. With Festo’s help, the new process will make it possible to clear material from small openings and channels as well.

Solukon Maschinenbau GmbH has been in the business of processing and removing materials for metal and polymer additive manufacturing (AM) since 2014, working with such customers as NASA, CERN, Lockheed Martin, Siemens, Daimler, and LORTEK. Just last October, the German firm released the SFP 770 for depowdering polymer selective laser sintering parts.

While Solukon’s technology has already been suitable for swiveling and vibrating parts in a repeatable and safe manner, there continue to be issues with accessing the powder within narrow cavities and openings. This has been especially true for materials that are hard to handle, such as copper. To tackle this, it has been necessary blow into these areas manually, but larger parts have been difficult to access using the glove ports on the Solukon system.

A rendering of the proposed solution.

As an expert in robotics, Festo is an ideal partner to address the issue. Through the integration of a handling system, a blowing or machining tool can be used to remove the excess metal in these areas. The companies also plan to rely on simulation and artificial intelligence to make it possible for the system to perform contour detection based on the CAD data of the component. In turn, the part can have air directed into small channels or even be machined when necessary. Naturally, such a system should speed up post-processing, but an additional benefit is increased repeatability during the finishing process, necessary for medical and aerospace production.

“Up to now, we have not taken advantage of the potential of automation in many process steps. We therefore see these innovative automation approaches as great opportunities for the future topic of additive manufacturing,” said Felix Hantsch, project manager in Innovation and Robotics Cluster DACH at Festo.

As noted in the recent SmarTech report, “Additive Manufacturing in the Factory of the Future: Opportunities and Markets“, one of the most prominent and important trends currently taking place in AM is increased automation, with a strong focus on post-processing. Firms such as PostProcess Technologies and DyeMansion are releasing products that aim to perform such finishing tasks as cleaning and dying automatically. Meanwhile, companies like HP are working to automate depowdering and other processes.

While Siemens is working with a number of firms, both on the manufacturing and post-processing side, to provide automation tools, there are surprisingly few robotics companies applying their expertise to this segment. Mitsubishi has teamed with post-processing business AMT to incorporate its robotic arms into the finishing workflow. However, in order for 3D printing to become a truly industrial technology capable of high throughput, it may be necessary for there to be increased participation from robotics firms.

In this case, we’re seeing Festo jump in relatively early. Because a number of 3D printer manufacturers are relying on industrial robotic arms for fabrication techniques, we may see more enter the post-processing space as well.

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