The Southern California-based startup Launcher, which specializes in the production of rockets using additive manufacturing (AM), announced that it recently acquired a Solukon SFM-AT1000-S automatic depowdering system for post-processing. In a press release, Launcher referred to Solukon as “its preferred supplier for powder removal systems.” This indicates not only the significance of the partnership itself, but just how crucial post-processing is to the progress of the AM industry in general. Specifically, what’s most critical to metal AM making its next great leap forward is the automation of the post-processing phase.
As Tim Berry, the head of manufacturing at Launcher, explains, “We see that automated powder removal is an essential step in the production process. For final heat treatment and Hot Isostatic Pressing all parts must be free of any powder, a special challenge for large and heavy parts with hard-to-access internal channels. The SFM-AT1000-S will help to further automize our production process as we achieve reliable and repeatable cleaning results.”
The most obvious advantage of the SFM-AT1000-S for Launcher’s purposes is its capacity for such large, heavy parts: to be exact, it can handle objects with dimensions up to 60 x 60 x 100 cm (about 2 ft x 2 ft x 3.25 ft), and weights of as much as 800 kg (about 1,762 lb). This particular Solukon system was originally designed for precisely such products as Launcher’s E-2 combustion chamber for rocket engines, which is a meter high. When Launcher first had the E-2 manufactured by the EOS-affiliated company AMCM in 2019, AMCM asked Solukon to create a machine specifically for depowdering parts from AMCM’s M4K printer.
In an article from last summer about a partnership between Solukon and the robotics firm Festo, 3DPrint.com Editor-in-Chief Michael Molitch-Hou, wrote, “…one of the most prominent and important trends currently taking place in AM is increased automation, with a strong focus on post-processing.” In addition to its being most crucial to the overall manufacturing process in the space and aerospace industries, post-processing is also probably more time-consuming, labor-intensive, and costly in these industries than in any others using AM — especially when it comes to metal parts. On top of that, there are unique health risks, as well as serious dangers including the risk of explosion, involved for individuals working on post-processing for metal AM parts. Clearly, such factors, sooner rather than later, will give the edge to space and aerospace companies that have the best handle on automating the post-processing phase.
By making the post-processing machine most well-suited for metal rocket and airplane parts, Solukon is putting itself in a favorable position to capture the metal AM post-processing market in general. Given the stakes related to that, it’s not unreasonable to expect that Solukon — or whichever company becomes the leader in the field — could gain increasing control over AM circular economies over the next decade. Visitors at the RAPID + TCT conference in Detroit (May 17-19) can see the Launcher system at the Solukon booth (#2137).
Images courtesy of Solukon.
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