Key to the increased adoption of additive manufacturing (AM) is both improved ease-of-use and throughput, typically via automation. While the benefits of the former are somewhat obvious, greater automation can lead to more parts produced, in turn allowing users to pay for their investment into 3D printing more quickly.
HP (NYSE: HPQ) has been at the forefront of these issues, releasing binder jet 3D printers that are said to be easy to use and capable of very high throughput. Quickly after releasing its first polymer 3D printer to the general market in 2018, the company became a leader in 3D printing for end part production. In an effort to continue enhancing its technology, thus increasing overall adoption, HP has announced new automation and software solutions at RAPID + TCT 2023 that will continue to give it a leg up on the competition.
HP Polymer 3D Printing Automation
In a virtual press briefing ahead of the event, HP showcased the new developments for remote members of the press. François Minec, Global Head of Polymer 3D Printing, unveiled the HP Jet Fusion 3D Powder Handling Automation Solution and Automation Accessory, both of which are serious upgrades to 3D printing workflows, not just for HP but AM as a whole.
While HP already offered a product for automatic unpacking of parts printed on its Multi Jet Fusion (MJF) machines, the new solutions take things a major step forward. Specifically, the Powder Handling Automation Solution makes it possible to more quickly reload materials into the printer to begin new jobs.
With the previous Automatic Unpacking Station (shown in the video below), the build unit of the printer would be moved into the cooling unit, where it is de-powdered, delivering unused powder into a drum and revealing the completed printed objects. The new product automatically feeds the drum back into the material processing station, with a capacity of managing powders for up to 15 printers, which can then be loaded back into build units for initiating the next build. This not only enables shorter cycle times, but also ensures powder quality and traceability by limiting human intervention—all while reducing material waste.
The Automatic Build Unit Exchanger further improves throughput by reducing idle time for MJF 3D printers. With this new tool, the printer can eject a build unit once a job is complete before a fresh build unit is inserted into the printer so that it can keep chugging along onto new jobs.
“Today our printers run on cycle times of about 12 hours—depending on the print mode between 10 and 14 hours,” Minec said. “The issue we have is that some customers don’t have a night shift or maybe don’t want to have night shift. They would launch a printer in the day. It would stop in the night, and it would stay idle until somebody comes and actually takes the build unit out and puts the new one in. In order, to solve this problem, we have developed a very efficient and simple system.”
The technology has been developed such that the 3D printer can be integrated into more complex factory configurations. At RAPID + TCT, the company is displaying videos of use case with Siemens in which an autonomous mobile robot is able to retrieve a completed build unit and bring it to different stations within the automatic powder handling workflow. ￼
Altogether, the ability to 3D print continuously overnight or on the weekend, increases throughput and reduces manual labor, thus lowering total cost of ownership (TCO) for the equipment.
“You can envision that, with this, we’re going to a fully lights-off factory,” Minec concluded.
Intelligent Metal Binder Jet 3D Printing
While the TCO for HP’s polymer AM technology can be lowered in part through increased automation, Arvind Rangarajan, Global Head Software and Data for Personalization and 3D Printing at HP Inc., was able to highlight how the company has improved the workflow for its metal binder jetting technology, which the company brought to market just last year in the form of the S100 3D printer. This, in turn, could result in lower costs by cutting material waste and improving the rate of first-time-right parts.
Rangarajan has only spent a year with HP, but has spent 12 years developing software solutions for additive at GE and Xerox PARC. With that experience, he was able to aid in the creation of new software tools to power HP’s Metal Jet process. This includes products dubbed 3D Digital Sintering and 3D Process Development.
Using physics-based modeling, the first tool predicts and compensate for shrinkage and deformation of a Metal Jet part caused by the necessary sintering process, relying on AI to speed up the workflow. Companies like Desktop Metal have already released packages akin to the first solution, highlighting how crucial it is to be able to predict and compensate for shrinkage and deformation during sintering.
3D Process Development is a somewhat more novel software in that it allows users to experiment with their printers by fine tuning parameters for a given application. Rangarajan put it this way:
“We are essentially opening up the process parameters and enabling our customers to do guided experimentation so they can develop their own process recipes and optimize their applications… The users will have the ability to adjust these parameter settings, run experiments, and then quickly look at the feedback by monitoring the KPIs and the telemetry that’s coming from the machines, and then create a library of experiments that would optimize their applications. And the goal here is to accelerate the time to develop and deploy applications in the Metal Jet printer.”
In addition to the two new pieces of software, HP has updated its 3D Center and 3D Command Center tools, which now support HP’s flagship Metal Jet printer, the S100. The former, which allowed for machine monitoring and maintenance alerts among other things, now allows HoloLens and other XR devices to access a virtual QR code to walk a customer through self-service maintenance and training. The 3D Command Center is meant for device-level printer monitoring, including consumable levels and subsystem statuses. It also acts as the printer’s serve and API gateway for third-party solutions.
Rangarajan described what the workflow would look like when applying these tools to metal binder jetting. The process would begin with a design that would then be simulated in 3D Digital Sintering, providing feedback for the user to refine the design. Using 3D Process Development, they could further optimize the actual printing procedure. Once the final recipe is established, users would rely manufacturing execution software to manage a fleet of S100 3D printers to produce the parts.
When writing about HP, I’m always amazed at just how quickly it conquered the AM market. Obviously, its products don’t tackle every area of the industry, but, through a combination of its corporate heft and technological ingenuity, established a broad partner network for mass producing huge volumes. Minec explained that, in the first five years of HP’s entrance into AM, its customers have 3D printed 100 million parts. In the last 12 months, however, they have 3D printed 75 million. With these latest product offerings, it’s clear that the company really is just getting warmed up.
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