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Free Float: SLM Solutions Introduces Support-Free Metal 3D Printing Tool

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In this past weekend’s webinar and event roundup, we told you about the online product launch that SLM Solutions (AM3D.DE) was inviting the industry to attend this week. The selective laser melting leader, which joined the “laser wars” this winter in a big way with the sale of five of its gigantic 12-laser NXG XII 600 systems, claimed it would be introducing technology that enables the creation of metal components with complex designs and improved thermal management, while using less material and reducing end-part cost.

As of today, the company’s big announcement has been revealed, and it’s a doozy: SLM Solutions has developed software that enables support-free metal 3D printing, called Free Float.

“Last year we introduced an industry gamechanger—the NXG Xll 600—but we won’t stop there. Today, after three years in the making and care of many of the world’s most visionary engineers, we are proud to add a new technology to our portfolio,” Sam O’Leary, CEO of SLM Solutions, said in an announcement about the launch event. “This new technology is another milestone, not only for us but for the entire industry. As a high-tech company, we are once again shaping the face of additive manufacturing with this product launch.”

This is a crucial development because, while support-free plastic and resin 3D printing are not totally rare possibilities, support-free metal 3D printing has really only been seen successfully delivered with VELO3D’s technology. There’s a conventional AM rule that recommends support structures for any surface with an angle of less than 45 degrees. Machine operators and engineers attempt to decrease the need for supports as much as possible in order to reduce post-processing and the waste of costly metal material. VELO3D certainly delivers in that aspect, so what about this new Free Float technology?

According to SLM Solutions, its Free Float software tool “drastically reduces support structures,” in addition to improving part quality and increasing build times.

“Additive Manufacturing has opened up endless possibilities in the way we conceptualize, design, and produce parts,” the company explained. “With such a modern approach to manufacturing at our fingertips, everything seems possible. In fact, many think that such complexity also comes with total freedom of design – except this isn’t the case. While new designs are indeed possible, a historic limitation has been holding your vision, and design freedom back: support structures.”

Post-processing has long been referred to as the AM industry’s dirty little secret, and a lot of it revolves around the removal of supports. With plastics, you can either break them off or wash them away, but removing supports from metal prints requires much more labor, often including CNC machining or EDM. Additionally, support structures add time to your build, increase material usage, and limit design freedom.

SLM Solutions explained that Free Float was discovered as a by-product of a different research project, which was focused on complex geometries like sharp edges and thin-walled components that, while offering desirable surface finish, still had sub-surface porosity issues.

“In 2017, we made a breakthrough in our technology which gave us that perfect missing part – and after years of rigorous research and development – Free Float was born,” the company explained. “Unlike point-by-point exposure techniques commercially available today that increase net build time, our unique vector technology establishes thermal management that significantly decreases net build time while simultaneously enhancing part quality. It is especially the case in the overhang areas, which can now free float, much like branches of a tree.”

One of the features of Free Float is the ability to, according to SLM Solutions, “unlock complex geometry” with “insane angles and extreme designs.” In addition to enabling sharper edges and thinner walls, the company says that Free Float can ensure low angles, specifically 10° long-range and 5° short-range, and higher density with less porosity. SLM Solutions says the software solution, which supports industrial-scale 3D printing, can also deliver a better surface finish, increased diameters for internal cooling chambers, reduced peel up, structureless overhang areas, and a big decrease in internal part stress, as well.

Other benefits of the software solution include:

  • reduced powder usage and scrap material
  • advanced thermal management
  • decreased post-processing times
  • higher part quality
  • more build space
  • a simple workflow

Another benefit is that a Free Float Basic Subscription is available to all customers for no extra charge, because SLM Solutions believes “in a future where no one gets left behind.”

“The goal is to be relentless in innovation. It’s free because we want to empower our partners and customer base,” O’Leary said. “Why should this remain an enablement of just a few when it can benefit all?”

Free Float starts with an .slm file, which includes sliced part geometry, a parameter file, and support structures only in locations where they cannot be avoided. Then, the file is loaded into the software suite, where users can immediately start assigning Free Float profiles, which “correlate with the various benefits of Free Float” as seen below.

Finally, Free Float has an open architecture, which means it can be retrofitted to nearly all of the company’s printers, including the SLM 280 2.0, SLM 800, SLM 500, and SLM 280 PS.

“Why is it is available for most systems in our portfolio? Because we strive to make every new piece of technology meet the demands of every priorly-built machine,” O’Leary said. “We believe that creating truly open architecture is the only way to bring additive manufacturing to its powerful potential.”

If you’re interested in the new Free Float software solution by SLM Solutions, check it out for free here.

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