Within the 3D printing industry, the Additive Manufacturing Users Group (AMUG) Conference is like no other. As the group’s motto goes, it is “for users, by users.” That results in an exclusive environment where the love for the technology and the community is palpable.
Last year’s coverage of the conference reflected a joy at returning to the event, but travel and meetings were still off limits for many. So, by the time the 2022 AMUG Conference rolled around, the show had returned to near normalcy. The only difference from events past was that this feeling of love was that much stronger after a year of COVID and another year of regrouping.
In addition to the hugs and selfies abound, the event was packed with informational sessions, expo booths, and the perks that only AMUG can provide. This wasn’t purely promotional, as is the case with most trade shows. Stretching all the way from Saturday, April 2 to Thursday, April 7, the show began with a two-day ASTM certificate course dedicated to establishing or updating an AM facility to produce safety-critical parts with metal laser powder bed fusion (LPBF).
With this training continuing into the following Sunday, other preliminary events included a tour of DMG Mori facilities in the Chicago area, as well as a new member welcome. By that evening, attendees were already more than pumped to be there, posting countless selfies on the way to the event and even more when they arrived.
New 3D Printed Cars from Divergent 3D
Monday saw attendees ease into the event with a welcome address, followed by a networking lunch, an afternoon of sessions, and a dinner. Then, the event kicked off in earnest on Tuesday with the crowning of this year’s DINOs and a keynote from Kevin Czinger, founder and CEO of Divergent 3D.
Czinger provided further insights into his business plans and actual manufacturing operations. Without saying who, the inventor revealed that he will be unveiling the first public partnership with an original equipment manufacturer (OEM) in the automotive space this September.
“[We’re working with] eight major OEM brands that are within the top 10 OEM automotive groups. And the first of those programs is a volume program for a frame that is going to be in production vehicles in September of this year,” Czinger said. He added, “We’ve started to add programs and these programs are vehicle multi-component frame programs in volumes for the life cycle of the vehicle from about 150 to the thousands in the next three years.”
He also revealed a photo of Divergent’s manufacturing cell, blurred out at the request of the firm’s IP lawyers. The 20-meter-wide system performs fixture-less assembly and is capable of putting together 10,000 complete vehicle structures or up to 150,000 sub-frames. This universal assembly cell, currently in Los Angeles, is going to be replicated in Europe in 2024, according to the CEO. Before then, Divergent will be unveiling a series of luxury vehicles, including a coupe and an SUV, at Monterey Car Week in August 2022.
Low-Cost Metal 3D Printing with Xact Metal
After the keynote, the day was once again filled with informational talks and panels that carried across the rest of the week. Topics ranged from binder jetting of reactive materials and X-ray inspection of AM parts to repairing with directed energy deposition and 3D printing for mass production in Asia. For instance, David Jankowski, Commercial Operations Leader at Xact Metal, discussed the possibilities with low-cost metal 3D printing. He reflected similar opinions as 3DPrint.com Executive Editor Joris Peels about how a more affordable system allows more market participation while lowering outsourcing costs.
Improved Powders = Faster Metal 3D Printing
Aluminum powder maker Equispheres presented alongside BMW, which is conducting tests on the firm’s materials. The Canadian company has demonstrated that users can increase production speeds by a factor of three, thus enabling customers like BMW to drive up throughput and reduce costs. Due to the extreme sphericity of Equispheres aluminum particles, the powder is packed densely and uniformly. In turn, it can absorb laser energy evenly and efficiently. This means that thicker powder layers can be spread, allowing for faster vertical build speed and scan speed and increased hatch distances that speed up horizontal printing. In addition, with speed ramped up, more parts can be made more quickly, thus cutting costs up to 50 percent.
BMW validated Equispheres’ powder on high- and medium-powered PBF machines. The auto giant determined that the firm’s aluminum consistently performed better than a standard powder. This included yield strength, tensile strength, elongation at break, and other properties. Moreover, costs were estimated to be about 12 percent less for production parts. The car maker believes that it can optimize Equipsheres material further by increasing layer thickness and laser power. It will also explore the production of prototype parts and reproducibility.
Quad-Laser Sintering with Nexa3D.
Of course, there was plenty of knowledge to be gained outside of the learning sessions, in the exhibition hall and through networking with other attendees. The expo space was divided into three rooms, with only platinum sponsors able to display wares throughout the duration of the show. In speaking to representatives from the various booths, I was able to catch differentiators among company products.
With Kristin Mulherin, general manager of Powder Bed Solutions at Nexa3D, I learned more about the quad laser technology behind the firm’s QLS 350. Obviously, due to the use of four lasers, the machine can achieve four times the productivity of a single laser sintering machine. One would think that a company like EOS would have applied their work in metals to polymers in this regard. Mulherin pointed out that, while there are a number of quad-laser systems for metal 3D printing, this is the only printer with such a feature for polymers.
Interestingly, Nexa is also introducing automation to its QLS system to attempt to achieve lights-out manufacturing. At the moment, this includes a machine capable of loading and unloading powder. However, Mulherin said that, in its research facility in Ventura, California, the company has taken the technology further with a shuttling robot capable of conveying powder to and from the printer.
Additive Manufacturing Intelligence with Hexagon
I also spoke to Giles Gaskell, Commercial Business Manager, and Mathieu Pérennou, Global Business Development Director of Additive Manufacturing, from Hexagon Manufacturing Intelligence. They elaborated on how the company’s solutions cover nearly the entire 3D printing workflow to attempt to optimize quality and reduce errors in AM. This included enhanced design for additive, with topology optimization and generative design, as well as simulation for part performance and the 3D printing process itself. This latter element makes it possible to pre-compensate for distortions that occur during the printing process.
Once a job is complete, Hexagon scanning tools can be used to check the print against the original CAD file to perform quality control for certification purposes or improve the design for subsequent prints. Hexagon is also the key supplier of CT scan software, which is crucial for true validation, as this is the only true, non-destructive method for actually seeing inside of a part. With all of this in mind, it’s no surprise that Gaskell was finally awarded a DINO at AMUG 2021. What makes this unique is that he was the first and only 3D scanning expert to earn the prestigious title so far.
Distributing 3D Printing with Würth Additive
Other exhibitors included the likes of Würth Additive Group, the newly formed 3D printing division of the massive fastening and assembly materials company, Germany’s Würth Group. The team brought with it the Kurtz Ersa-branded, low-cost LPBF system from Laser Metal Innovations. In this writer’s mind, Würth may be poised to play a major role in the industry. The division’s CEO, AJ Strandquist, pointed out how many of the additive brands they supply lack the marketing and PR clout that Würth can provide. However, once attached to the German firm, these products are instantly plugged into a network of 400 Würth businesses across 80 countries.
The uniqueness of each product also stands out from the overall market. The Kurtz Ersa, for instance, is one of only a handful of low-cost metal laser sintering machines out there. Würth sells this alongside the Arburg Freeformer machine, the only system of its kind; Markforged metal and carbon fiber machines; and vat photopolymer 3D printers from Rapid Shape. Würth Lead Technician Jacob Ayers pointed out that Rapid Shape has introduced a significant amount of automation to its 3D printers, which could ultimately pair well with the warehouse robotics that Würth itself has at a few of its own facilities.
I also got a chance to meet up with the representatives at fabWeaver to understand how its parent company, Sindoh, fits into the larger market. Interestingly, fabWeaver is targeting the industrial space with the type A350, an engineering grade fused filament fabrication (FFF) machine. At the same time, Sindoh itself has several smaller FFF printers alongside a laser sintering system. For now, the fabWeaver is capable of 3D printing with ABS and ASA within its heated chamber, but higher temperature materials may be possible in future iterations of the machine.
3D Printing Community at AMUG
Of course, AMUG wouldn’t be what it is without the off-site event. Only three event organizers are made aware of the location of the festivities, leaving all other attendees, including host Todd Grimm, in the dark. This year, dinner was held at the Old Post Office, where attendees were not only treated to a fabulous meal but awesome entertainment, from arcade games to karaoke. The star of the show was binder jetting expert Dan Brunermer, whose rendition of “Mr. Brightside” by The Killers was not to be missed.
Ford’s Ellen Lee
After a night of flapper-era gambling at the Chicago Hilton, the event came to a graceful ending on the final day. The technical leader of Additive Manufacturing Research at Ford Motor Company, Ellen Lee, gave the closing keynote, highlighting the legendary automaker’s use of AM and what needs to happen in the future for the technology to take off in automotive.
Contrasting automotive AM with aerospace’s adoption of the technology, Lee explained that vehicle production requires parts in the thousands to millions of units; in a variety of materials, with high cost sensitivity; with flexible production; at a fast rate; and built in a repeatable fashion. Partnering with GM and Stellantis, Ford and the United States Council for Automotive Research developed a roadmap to achieve this. It begins with a focus on high-value, high-mix parts and leads to high throughput and productivity and ends with distributed manufacturing.
Key for Lee, whose career has been built on researching sustainability at Ford, is accomplishing this in an ecological manner. For that reason, among the considerations when it comes to design for AM is the ability to disassemble a vehicle at the end of its lifespan so that the resources can be recycled for future use.
“[We want AM] to help drive us towards a circular economy, in addition to developing processes that are less energy intense incorporating more recycled and renewable content, as well as any waste products into our additive feed stocks. We’re also very interested, not just in reduced waste that comes out of those primary printing and post process steps,” Lee said. “But we still have waste today from our legacy processes like step powders or prototype parts that are no longer used. So, one small step in the direction towards the circular economy is to take these waste PA 12 materials and recycle them into injection mold parts that we’re using back on our F-series vehicles. You’ve got to start somewhere.”
With Czinger opening up the event and Lee closing it, the dialogue reflected the circular nature of the economy these companies are chasing. Altogether, it provided a sense of closure to the show as attendees took in the last sessions, meals, and chats before heading back home. As the industry progresses, however, there was a sense that, even after two decades in existence, this could only be just the beginning for AMUG. There will be future discussions, nights on the town, and award ceremonies for the legendary organization. We can only wonder how the maturing of the sector will impact the close-knit event as it goes from a $10.6 billion industry to something even bigger.
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