Real-time Quality Control: Which System is Right for You?
Last week on the blog, we looked at the elements of an effective quality control process for 3D printing operations. Today on the blog, we’re going to look in-depth at the various tools available for monitoring your print runs in real time.
Gathering real-time data on your machines’ performance will have a number of benefits for your entire operation. First of all, it allows any errors to be spotted straight away, so the printers can be either stopped or adjusted during printing (if the system will allow this). This will helping minimise the loss of time and money that comes from a flawed print run. The resulting peace of mind is especially important for industries like aerospace and automotive, where the materials used for 3D printing are typically quite costly.
Second, real-time inspection allows engineers to maintain tighter control of parts’ internal geometries, as these are quite challenging to inspect once printing is complete, even if CT scanning (which we’ll look at in a future post) is utilised.
Finally, if all print runs are monitored as part of standard project workflows, the resulting data can be collated, delivering a ‘big picture’ view of a 3D printing operation’s overall performance. This data can help highlight new opportunities for refinement or improvement, such as shorter printing times, reduced material wastage and improved part quality.
Of course, this then raises the question of how real-time monitoring of the printing process can actually be successfully implemented. Fortunately, a number of specialist hardware/software tools have been developed for this purpose:
This is an integrated hardware and software monitoring package for DMLS applications, based on four modules: MeltPool, PowderBed, System and Exposure OT. Exposure OT is particularly notable, as it was developed in collaboration with MTU Aero Engines, using camera-based optical tomography to monitor the behaviour of metal during printing.
This system consists of one hardware package, SensorPak, and three cloud software packages: Inspect, Contour and Analytics. The hardware utilises an array of sensors to gather live data of the DMLS printing process, which the software then processes and collates, providing a real-time performance overview of the user’s printers.
Part of the Magics software suite, in addition to real-time monitoring of the build process, Inspector also offers the ability to run simulations of the printing process and also perform post-processing and root cause analysis.
NASA’s in-house quality control solution
In March of 2017, NASA published details of the new system they had developed in-house to monitor the quality of their 3D printed parts. NASA’s system combines infrared and visual cameras to build up a comprehensive picture of the printing process, with the visual cameras monitoring the precise location of the laser used in powder-based printing, while the infrared ones gather temperature. The system works with both metal- and plastic-based printing and, according to NASA, can integrate with any existing 3D printer.
Why this technology is so important to the 3D printing sector
If 3D printing is to establish itself as a tool for large-scale production, the delivery of high-quality parts must not be allowed to come at the expense of efficient processes. Implementing real-time quality control systems ensures that the detection and repair of errors can take place in advance of the actual quality control stage, with no chance of human error. Furthermore, all relevant production information can be captured automatically, helping to identify new opportunities for process enhancement. These tools and this approach will allow engineers to make more effective use of their time and help institute a culture of constant improvement and innovation. The result: error-free production parts, delivered in a timely and consistent manner.