Solukon Automates Powder Collection for Metal 3D Printing

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Almost a decade ago, manufacturers of laser powder bed fusion (LPBF) machines were showcasing dreams of a completely automated metal 3D printing factory. Visions like Concept Laser’s AM Factory of Tomorrow included animations in which robots moved build chambers and material units to and from metal 3D printers while CNC and EDM robots removed parts from build platforms. It’s taken some time, but that dream is beginning to be realized and Solukon, an expert in LPBF processing automation, is among the pioneers.

The latest evidence of this is the firm’s new Powder Collection Unit for Metal, the SFM-PCU, which the German company aims to unveil at Formnext 2023. As the industry ramps up to serial production and the depowdering systems expand in size, the handling of increasing quantities of residual powder has become a logistical challenge. The SFM-PCU aims to address this issue working in tandem with the company’s large-format SFM-AT1000-S de-powdering system.

Automated Metal 3D Printing Powder Collection

As depowdering takes place, residual powder accumulates in a hopper at the bottom of the SFM-AT1000-S. An integrated vacuum conveyor system in the SFM-PCU is triggered to vacuum up the powder at a sensor-monitored transfer point. This powder is then channeled through a hose into a sizable container.

The SFM-PCU. Image courtesy of Solukon.

One of the standout features of the SFM-PCU is that the container is rollable and can be swapped during the operation. With sensors monitoring the container’s fill level, which can also be inspected through large windows, the system offers real-time visibility into the process status. By incorporating the SFM-PCU, Solukon ensures that the users have zero direct contact with the powder material, which remains in a closed system throughout the depowdering process.

The SFM-PCU is specifically designed to handle large volumes of powder, making it an ideal fit for Solukon’s SFM-AT1000-S and, depending on the application, even the SFM-AT800-S. The unit’s substantial container volume exceeds 100 liters, enabling its use in conjunction with up to three single-material Solukon systems.

Solukon’s Partner Ecosystem

This is just the latest in the German company’s automation products. Looking at past tools, you’ll notice that Solukon has a tendency to collaborate with larger, expert companies to create its products. With CNC manufacturer Reichenbacher Hamuel GmbH, Solukon was able to introduce a combined unpacking and depowdering station. Siemens enabled the development of software for optimized depowdering. FESTO has worked with Solukon to clear powder from smaller cavities in 3D printed parts.

In this most recent product, Solukon tapped Piab, a Swedish company, for the vacuum conveyor used in the SFM-PCU. Piab boasts over 1,200 employees across more than 25 sales offices throughout the world. Not only is Piab considered a market leader in vacuum conveyor technology, but it has been a previous partner for Solukon in past projects involving automated unpacking and cleaning stations.

Metal 3D Printing Automation

As detailed in both the “Automation and Additive Manufacturing: Opportunities and Markets” and “Post-Processing for Additive Manufacturing: Market Analysis and Forecast” reports from Additive Manufacturing Research (formerly SmarTech Analysis), the automation of post-processing is key for the industrial adoption of metal LPBF and reaching a market value of more than $1.8 billion by 2031. In order to drive down labor costs and increase throughput, post-processing needs to become increasingly automatic. This means that every step, from design and printer prep to powder loading and unloading, are incorporating more and more automation.

While Solukon is the leader in powder post-processing, there is plenty of room for more competition. That may come from polymer post-processing companies like AMT, Rosler (AM Solutions), and Post Processing or firms outside of the industry looking to take care of the rapidly growing additive manufacturing market. Additionally, we’ll continue to see other aspects of the workflow become more automated. For instance, AM-Flow is targeting conveyancing and handling, while 3YOURMIND focuses on part identification.

Concept Laser’s AM Factory of Tomorrow concept, circa 2015. Image courtesy of Concept Laser.

One interesting player is 1000Kelvin, who is using artificial intelligence to automate the process of optimizing the LPBF printer’s toolpath such that the part can be printed correctly the first time. This doesn’t mean altering the CAD file to compensate for distortions during the build, but actually making the printer work properly to execute the desired part.

Altogether, we’ll see major manufacturers finally laying out all of these tools in an integrated, mostly lights-out factory setting. If all goes according to the plans of the world’s decision-makers, this is all but inevitable. The real question then is, given the blinding rate at which the Chinese AM market is growing, is this already happening in China?

The global debut of the SFM-PCU will occur at Formnext 2023, scheduled for November 7-10. Solukon cordially invites industry professionals and enthusiasts to Booth 12.0, D42, where the SFM-PCU will be connected to an SFM-AT1000-S for live demonstrations.

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