The next phase of additive manufacturing (AM) advancement may be less related to hardware and more driven by software, as new tools are used to organize and integrate fleets of 3D printers and/or 3D printing robots within production workflows. This will be complemented by any number of pre- and post-processing robots that also automate the laborious and costly steps that take place before and after the actual printing process.
For that reason, we reached out to experts in the field to get a sense for how software and automation will evolve over the course of the next year.
3D Printing Simulation
Doug Kenik, Director of Software Product Development at Markforged, echoed the sentiment I expressed above, saying, “Better software, not hardware, will drive 3D printing adoption.”
Kenik elaborated, “In many organizations 3D printing is used to address very specific problems and is used for limited applications as the technology’s champions, usually younger professionals, struggle to convince other stakeholders to utilize the technology for broader applications. Simulation features within 3D printing workflows will be key to testing parts virtually and creating evidence that printed parts can be used to disrupt existing workflows while taking away any perceived risk. Simulation will be the key to broader 3D printing adoption and unlock new applications across an array of industries.”
Simulation is a crucial development in the AM software space, not just in terms of predicting part performance, but also in projecting the print process itself. There have been several moves in this space, including the acquisition of Additive Works by 3D Systems and Riven by Stratasys. The latter makes it possible to pre-deform CAD models to compensate for errors that will occur during printing.
Software and Automation Go Hand-in-Hand
Interestingly, 3D Systems also took on board one of the pioneers in AM simulation, Dr. Brent Stucker, as its Chief Technology Officer. Surely he’ll help guide the company as it relates to software, among other things, but because 3D Systems’ software division, Oqton, operates independently, it’s difficult to determine how the simulation scientist would be involved with Oqton’s overall operations. Dr. Ben Schrauwen, senior vice president and general manager at Oqton, underscored that software will be a crucial part of automation, saying:
“As AM becomes more widely adopted as a technology for production over the coming year, I believe software will play an increasingly important role in three key areas: automation, traceability, and verticalization. As industries with high-mix production environments such as service bureaus, healthcare, and consumer goods strive to reduce the time and cost associated with preparing files for the printing process, I foresee AM software playing a key role in facilitating automation. This is possible due to the use of modern AI techniques such as deep learning that can uniquely drive very high levels of automation not previously possible. With enhanced efficiency and lower cost, skilled staff can focus on other tasks that can add value to the manufacturing environment.”
Oqton’s software applied to dental 3D printing. Image courtesy of Oqton.
As for the other two areas, traceability and verticalization, Schrauwen said:
“For highly regulated industries such as medical and aerospace, I believe the importance of traceability of the complete solution — including maintenance, materials, and operators — will continue to rise. I anticipate we’ll see software playing an increasingly important role here in the coming year, to integrate multiple systems into a singular system of record. Finally, to expand the applications which AM can address, I believe we’ll see an increase in the availability of easy-to-use vertical software solutions. I envision offerings such as currently available dedicated solutions for dental applications, heat exchanger design, and conformally cooled mold inserts that do not require the user to have deep knowledge of the additive process, but that can be key enablers to expand the overall size of the additive market.”
It’s interesting to note how even in the verticalization sounds as though it would be driven in part by automation via AI.
Shaul Samara, Vice President of Global Software Strategy at Stratasys, highlighted both the hardware and software aspects of the automation trend, telling 3DPrint.com:
“The additive manufacturing industry has shown that industrial 3D printers are up to the demands of producing end use parts, but we now need to focus more on automating processes in response to this change in focus. We started to see it in 2022 and I believe it will be a major focus over the next year or two. For example, today, 60 to 75 percent of the work cycle is spent on tasks before you even start printing. By automating step like quoting and jobs validation, we can cut that almost to zero. In the actual 3D printing process, we can automate material replenishment by sending the right materials directly to the right workstation, which saves time, improves accuracy, and significantly reduce waste. And finally, we can use automated robots to improve process repeatability and quality, and get more parts through post production with less labor across growing fleets of 3D printers. These steps will enable global manufacturing to really start to measure significant business process improvements, at scale, from shifting more production to additive.”
Drivers of Automation
In his company’s own 2023 predictions, Materialise CEO Fried Vancraen highlighted the need for skilled labor and the desire to increase 3D printing output while maintaining repeatability are driving the automation trend:
“3D printing is a digital manufacturing technology, but it still requires a considerable amount of human intervention. And these skilled workers are increasingly hard to find. In fact, a recent survey by Materialise indicated that recruiting a workforce with the necessary expertise is the top challenge for companies that are already using or considering 3D printing,” Vancraen said. “At the same time, scaling up industrial 3D printing production into the thousands or millions requires a repeatable and consistent printing process. These two challenges increase the need for automation.”
So far, this has meant automating individual stages of the 3D printing process, such as preparing and fixing files, but Vancraen believes that the next stage will also mean automating the flow between these various stages; i.e., workflow automation. Bart Van der Schueren, Managing Director of Materialise Software, spoke to this point when he told 3DPrint.com:
“In recent years, software has played a crucial role in automating the various, individual stages of the 3D printing process, from preparing and fixing files to post-processing. Now, the promise of industrial-scale 3D printing requires a repeatable and consistent printing process where not only the individual stages are automated, but also the flow between them. The arrival of Software Platforms, like Materialise’s CO-AM platform, allows manufacturers to automate not only the individual stages but their entire workflow, from order intake to delivery and everything in between.”
Daghan Cam, CEO of AiBuild, naturally sees AI as being inherent to the evolution of 3D printing, as well. His firm develops software for 3D printing techniques optimized by machine learning. To drive the automation trend, he also expects “open architecture” to enable more synergy between hardware, materials, and software.
“In 2023 we expect to see two major trends accelerating in additive manufacturing. Firstly, there is going to be new hardware/materials/software partnerships emerging as a result of the demand for “open architecture” solutions from the end customers. The systems will be more interconnected and become an integral part of the manufacturing lines. Secondly, AI will transform additive manufacturing workflows. Manual, trial and error approaches will be replaced by smart use of data and cloud based machine learning solutions. With the increased level of automation and seamless integrations between hardware, software and materials, additive manufacturing technology will continue its expansion into mainstream applications.”
3D Printing Data Security
Vancraen pointed to another trend that is only now returning to top of mind for the industry as a whole. Though data security has long been a topic of discussion in the AM sector, the technology had previously not been quite at the production level. This meant that data security was either conceptual, dealt with on a project-by-project basis, or handled differently by every firm. Now that we are reaching the level of large batch production, more standardized, industry-wide solutions will have to be offered to protect data that is stored, directly transferred, and/or streamed in the cloud.
“This new digital, distributed production environment revolves around one key asset — data. And that data needs to be secured, preventing a rogue supplier from stealing a design and printing it on his own 3D printer. Of course, data security is important in any form of manufacturing, whether traditional or smart. In both cases, companies share their unique designs with contractors and suppliers, and they want to know that their design data remains secure,” Vancraen said. “But with 3D printing, there’s more to it than that. Manufacturers that plan to scale up the production of a 3D printed part into the thousands or millions need to optimize and fine-tune their unique printing process to make it efficient, reliable, and repeatable across multiple production sites. A smart production process ensures that all 3D-printed components have the same quality, no matter where they are produced. Creating such a process is complex and time-consuming, but it allows companies to leap ahead of the competition. That’s why, in addition to data security, data integrity is becoming top of mind for companies that embrace digital manufacturing.”
Mike Vasquez, Founder and CEO of AM consulting firm 3Degrees, explained that, though there are significant advances taking place in the fields discussed, the path forward is not a straightforward one. There will be significant progress to be made as these solutions are implemented and scaled.
“As the reality of the 2023 economy sets in, companies need to be realistic about how they deploy automation. For all the talk of end-to-end ‘lights-out’ factories, there remains a large gap for most organizations deploying AM to get to that point with the available tools,” said Vasquez, who authored the 3D printing industry’s first report on automation, “Automation, Additive Manufacturing and the Factory of the Future” from SmarTech Analysis. Vasquez added, “That being said, the early adopters will continue to make huge strides in figuring out the bugs and applying the technology to targeted applications.”
Andre Wegner, founder and CEO of MES developer Authentise, suggested that, though the entire industry will be looking toward greater integration of 3D printing software into larger manufacturing operations, there will be a split between those reaching for pre-packaged and tailored solutions.
Authentise’s Digital Design Warehouse for managing digital spare parts. Image courtesy of Authentise.
“We’re expecting to see a bi-furcation in the AM software automation market in 2023. As the market matures, more specific requirements will be needed by the bigger players, who are increasingly outgrowing excel sheets and traditional ERP systems they’ve been using. On the other hand, smaller service bureaus are now well established and specific functionality (such as online quoting or production management), can be bought off-the-shelf and fit well. The continued emphasis for both will be integration as customers tire of having to use multiple different tools. This will be aided by an increased acceptance of the cloud as a delivery system, especially at the off-the-shelf end,” Wegner said.
We also reached out to Harshil Goel, CEO of Dyndrite, which has created a GPU-powered application development kit for creating high performance Additive CAM apps and a recently announced end user application for LPBF materials and process development. Goel highlighted the fact that software automation will expand beyond AM alone.
“Additive software automation will evolve to have deeper ties into the manufacturing process as opposed to the superficial database and business logic state of today. This change will work in concert with the CAM software evolution to practically control and explore the toolpaths used to expand available materials, improve build rate, improve part quality, and enable the printing of more intricate geometries. These changes will first be felt by the users of laser powder bed fusion, followed by the jetting/photopolymerization processes,” Goel said.
Regardless of how the exact segment shapes up, we can confidently say that the AM software and automation segments will grow and rapidly. SmarTech Analysis, in particular, suggests in its “Opportunities in Additive Manufacturing Software Markets 2023” report that software will grow from $1.2 billion this year to $6.2 billion in 2031.
At the 2023 Additive Manufacturing Strategies networking business summit, taking place February 7 to 9, 2023, 3D printing software developer Dyndrite is the vertical sponsor of the Software and Automation session. Taking place on day three of the event, Dyndrite CEO Harshil Goel will be giving the keynote address. Register for AMS 2023 here.
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