Expert Interview: PostProcess Technologies CEO on Solving the Post-Processing Bottleneck for Additive Manufacturing
27 November 2018
Before and after: 3D-printed parts following post-processing using PostProcess Technologies’ automation solutions. Image credit: PostProcess Technologies
Post-processing is a vital stage of the additive manufacturing process – and yet perhaps the most time-consuming. According to one statistic, current post-processing methods account for between 30-60% of the additive manufacturing process.
One key reason for this bottleneck is that post-processing is still primarily a manual process. One company that aims to transform this is PostProcess Technologies. With its main headquarters in Buffalo, New York, PostProcess Technologies offers automated solutions for post-processing, including support removal and surface finishing.
In this week’s Expert Interview, AMFG speaks with PostProcess Technologies’ CEO, Jeff Mize, to learn more about how the company is forging the way for automated post-processing for additive manufacturing and why automated post-processing is needed for the technology to scale.
Could you tell me a bit about PostProcess Technologies and the problems you’re trying to solve?
We’re solving two major challenges, the first being automating support removal. Today, there’s still a heavy component of manual labour when it comes to removing supports from additive parts. Additive manufacturing is a lot like nature: as you’re building a part in the Z-axis, layer by layer, the force of gravity means you’ll need supports. Since the vast majority of parts produced additively have some type of supports, the first area we’re focused on is automating the support removal process.
Better surface finishing for 3D-printed parts is our second focus. Ten or even five years ago, most of the activity within AM was for a fit function in engineering – of course there were some exceptions, but generally speaking, those parts really didn’t see the light of day. But over the past couple of years, the industry is seeing more and more additive parts used for form/fit function, which has led to a dramatic increase in the need for a better surface finish. We ensure the part can be “customer ready” — that customer may be an internal customer or a customer of our customers.
We approach these two functions through the integration of software, hardware and chemistry. All of our investment, expertise and innovation is focused on the industrial segment of the AM market — and the software is secret sauce. That controls the amount of energy that our solutions utilise to finish these delicate additive parts, so we’re able to automatically remove the supports and give customers a dramatically improved surface finish.
What benefits do your solutions offer?
There are three key benefits we offer our customers. One is consistency – oftentimes there’s more art than science when it comes to post-printing for additive today. Our machines run around the clock and offer a consistency that you don’t get with manual methods.
The second benefit is throughput. As each of our customers scales their AM operations, they’re seeing more and more of a bottleneck in what we call the third step of the additive process: post-print. With our solutions, they’re able to automate that process and remove that bottleneck.
The third is return on investment. We’re able to significantly reduce the amount of attended technician time – in many cases we’re able to reduce this by at least 90%. As a result, our customers get a very fast return on investment, typically within a 10-30 week timeframe.
We’re seeing that prototyping volumes are growing rapidly. Companies that were producing a thousand prototypes in their labs a year or two ago are now producing 10,000 to 30,000 prototypes in the same lab. Even though they’re still considered prototypes, we hear customers wanting to find a way to get more consistent parts. Using manual methods are too time-consuming, and it’s difficult to find the right technician. So our solution is absolutely critical for these prototype volumes to continue to increase and that is absolutely essential to get into production volumes.
Could you explain a little bit more about how you integrate software, hardware and chemistry?
Our focus on integrating software, hardware and chemistry really offers a unique value for the post-printing stage. In addition to figuring out the software and developing the hardware, we’re also spending a lot of time on optimising the chemistry for the highest volume technologies like PolyJet, FDM, SLA, then DMLS on the metal side, along with MJF from HP, CLIP from Carbon – and we have over 500,000 benchmarks.
We have our coders sitting next to our chemists and development engineers, and the three groups of engineers are constantly working together so we can continually optimise the end results for the customer. That’s a unique and novel approach that no one else is doing today. It gives us a significant leadership position in the automated post-printing market for additive.
So this three-way integration is a key differentiator between you and similar solutions on the market today?
Yes. And the software element is critical. Within that software element, there is a data analytics component. We’re optimising that software to further optimise the process. Whether it’s the Agitation Algorithm utilised for support removal or the frequency and amplitude we’re using in our surface finish solutions, the software component, or data analytics, is another area of significant investment for us as we go forward.
Think of it like this: the software piece is the brain of what we’re doing here. And then the integration of software, hardware and chemistry allows us to consistently deliver the three benefits to end customers: consistent parts, unlimited throughput as well as fast ROI.
Are there specific verticals you’re targeting?
The three biggest markets we see emerging are in aerospace, medical and automotive. Currently, our customer base covers virtually every vertical but over time, we think we’ll see the majority of our revenue come from the aerospace, medical, dental and automotive sectors.
What do you see as the main challenges still facing additive manufacturing?
Speed and reducing overall costs are important challenges we’re still facing today. The speed with which you can print parts is critical, which is why we’re seeing companies like HP and Stratasys doing a lot of work in that area, so that you can actually print faster. Cost is another issue – but I believe we’ll continue to see the cost of the solutions coming down, not just on polymer side but on the metal side as well.
As for where PostProcess comes in: we believe our automated solutions will remove one of the biggest problems right now, which is allowing increased throughput with consistent output of the post-printing function.
How do you see additive manufacturing evolving over the next five years?
I think AM will be worth 3 to 4% of traditional manufacturing, i.e. a 3-4 hundred billion dollar market over the next five years. One of the biggest markets will be medical, where mass customisation is so important.
So I see additive becoming the dominant manufacturing technology in medical in the upcoming years — it’s projected to be the second largest market after aerospace.
The ability to build unique geometries with the materials which weigh a lot less for applications in aerospace and automotive is going to quickly ramp up. We’re currently at the inflexion point where we’ll see average growth rates of 40%+ in particular verticals.
There are also more and more customers going into production. Recently, we were speaking with a cosmetic company who plans to produce 50 million additive parts per year over the next two to three years.
We see automotive companies planning to produce thousands of additive parts to go on production vehicles. So at a higher level we’ll see more companies pursuing higher production volumes. Automating the third step of that process will be essential for that consistency, throughput and for traceability.
PostProcess has recently announced its expansion into Europe. Why did you make that decision – and do you have further plans for the expansion in the future?
The demand for additive is global and is only continuing to grow – we’ve had over 2000 companies around the world enquire about our solutions. Unsurprisingly, a lot of that demand comes from Europe, which is why we’ve now opened our Europe headquarters in Sophia-Antipolis just outside of Nice, France.
The European market is about the same size as the North American market in terms of potential. I’d even go so far as to say that Europe is ahead, particularly on the metals side, with companies like EOS, SLM and Renishaw.
Outside of France, we believe Germany will be our biggest market and we’ve recently announced our partnership with Rösler Mass Finishing, the world’s leading supplier of surface finishing technologies. Rösler will be our distribution arm in Europe. With Rösler we’ll have a strong presence in Germany and be able to cover very quickly all the key industrial countries, from Germany to France to Spain to the UK to Poland to Italy.
So, to answer your question, it was an alignment of several factors – we also have plans to launch in Asia, although this will most likely be in late 2019/2020.
Could you share what’s on the horizon for PostProcess Technologies?
We continue to get feedback from our customer base, and the majority of our current investment is being used to enhance our solutions to be able to handle higher throughput along with new materials. The chemistry team is constantly innovating to try to keep up with the amount of material science work that’s going into additive. So enhancements are coming from the support removal perspective as well as the surface finish perspective.
There are a couple of other problems we see becoming more acute in post-printing which we will be addressing going forward. At this point we’re not publicly disclosing what we are doing there, but it definitely goes beyond support removal and surface finish. We’ll be bringing a couple of additional solutions to the market – one in 2019 and another in 2020. These will offer an end-to-end post-finishing suite of products that we think will address the vast majority of customer needs for additive.
Find out more about PostProcess Technologies here.