Expert Interview: A Look at Nexa3D’s Ultra-Fast, Industrial-Grade SLA 3D Printers
21 February 2019
When it comes to industrial 3D printing, speed and part accuracy are key. As the adoption rate of 3D printing continues to increase across industries, 3D printer manufacturers are continuously striving to improve the print times of their machines and the quality of parts produced.
One such company is Nexa3D, a manufacturer of industrial, production-grade SLA printers.
The California-based company has developed its own proprietary technology, LSPc, short for Lubricant Sublayer Photo-curing. Through its LSPc technology, Nexa3D is promising faster print speeds and greater levels of accuracy than any other industrial SLA system on the market.
Notably, Nexa3D, which unveiled its large-format NXE400 at CES 2019, says its technology can help to significantly reduce production times for prototypes and functional parts, whilst maintaining injection moulding levels of tolerance, repeatability and quality.
We spoke with Nexa3D’s Chief Product Officer, Izhar Medalsy, to learn more about its technology, the market opportunities for 3D printing and what the future holds for the industry.
Could you tell me about Nexa3D and the problem you’re addressing?
Nexa3D is addressing three challenges: speed, scale and economics.
We realised early on that there’s still an unmet need in the market for fast, large-scale professional 3D printers. Our aim is to reduce the time to print from days or hours to just minutes.
So we’ve developed our own technology — LSPc — with a machine that is 2.5 times larger than anything that’s available on the market and six times faster than any other printer in its class. That, coupled with its price point, makes it a very appealing printer for the professional market.
We have a build platform that can populate tens and hundreds of parts and print them in minutes. This means that we’re not only disrupting the 3D printing industry, but we’re also disrupting the traditional injection moulding industry, as our speeds and tolerances are at the injection moulding standard.
As you’ve mentioned, Nexa3D has developed its own proprietary LSPc technology. Could you take us through how the technology works?
LSPc stands for Lubricant Sublayer Photo-curing. Our machine has a self-lubricated membrane that solves the problem of fast printing from a few different angles.
When you’re printing a part using SLA, one of the limiting factors is the delamination forces during the print.
As you know, 3D printing works by adding material layer by layer. With SLA, the layer thickness can range from anything between 25 microns and 200 microns.
Once the layers are added to the part during the printing process, they tend to be very fragile and sensitive to peeling forces. Hence why companies are often forced to print very slowly, so as not to jeopardise the print structure during the printing process.
What our self-lubricated membrane does is eliminate the forces between the part being printed, which is in a green state, and the build area.
The resin, which is a viscous material, needs to move into the printed area to be able to print the next layer.
The flexible membrane means we can address the issue of resin replenishment, which is unaddressable with other techniques. This is because the membrane, thanks to its flexibility, helps to propagate the resin to every area of the print platform, which enables us to print faster than any other machine.
These are the two key issues we’re addressing during the print process.
How is your technology able to guarantee both speed and accuracy?
What we’ve developed in addition to LSPc is a structured light metrics — a light engine, so to speak. Our light engine is unique in that it uses a light metric rather than a DLP projector like traditional techniques.
One of the drawbacks of DLP is that you’re dealing with aberrations of the optical system at the edges of your build platform. This is because you have a central lens that needs to cover a relatively large area.
We’ve taken LCD technology and developed a unique structure of LEDs and optical guiding systems that enables light uniformity across the build area. This light uniformity along with detail uniformity (the LCD pixel size is the same at every point) are the biggest differentiators between LCD and DLP.
So we’re not only able to deliver accurate light across the build plate, but we’re also able to address the uniformity across the build plate, guaranteeing a high level of accuracy and tolerances, part-to-part and print-to-print.
Why did you decide to focus on SLA?
We saw a gap in the current capabilities of the technology and a demand in the market to fill this gap.
On one hand, you have the traditional laser-based SLA technologies. These are the gold standard in terms of resolution, accuracy and so on. However, the print time is extremely long.
On the other hand, there are companies that claim they can print fast but are lacking when it comes down to print performance and long post-processing times.
Because of this, there’s a huge demand in the market for fast printers. We see that the market is conditioned and ready, and we’re able to address this need very quickly with our LSPc technology.
What industries or applications would benefit the most from your technology?
Quite a number of industries would benefit from being able to print solid objects at high speeds.
An obvious application, of course, is rapid prototyping. Instead of producing design iterations on a weekly basis, if using traditional technologies, or in days or hours, if using current 3D printing technologies, you can now iterate by the minute. This means you can go through several design iterations in a day, accelerate product development and make decisions much faster than what we’re currently used to.
In terms of specific industries, automotive is a key one. We have a strategic partner, Techniplas, that is a Tier 1 provider for the automotive industry. As a partner of their open innovation programme, we’re able to serve the automotive industry and its real-life applications, from prototyping to real manufacturing parts.
Why is the automotive industry such a key focus for Nexa 3D?
The automotive industry has several needs that make 3D printing an ideal tool.
The first is weight reduction. 3D printing, through topological optimisation and generative design, can print parts that can’t be manufactured using traditional technologies.
We can take parts made with injection moulding and die casting, for example, and optimise them to significantly reduce the weight of a part.
The other is production volume. When a car manufacturer wants to produce volumes into the hundreds of thousands, making moulds for each part is very expensive. 3D printing allows you to use one technique to serve multiple parts very quickly and iterate between different parts on the fly.
How do you see additive manufacturing evolving over the next five years?
First, I think it’s clear that the demand for speed will dictate a lot of the trends.
People understand the capabilities of the technology and many great companies have done the work of training and conditioning the market.
If we take 3D printing within the dental market as an example, we’re currently looking at an adoption rate of 5-8%. But over the next five years, the numbers predict an adoption of 80%.
Footwear is another example, where there’s a growing need for 3D printing. The sector is keen to integrate the technology into wider processes and make it more accessible. So I think that as the materials and capabilities evolve, we’ll see greater adoption here as well.
And we’re only just beginning to scratch the surface with automotive. As the speed and materials improve, we ’ll see a huge change in the design process and new models being introduced to the market. In fact, the market will demand faster design iterations for new models because the technology will be capable of doing so.
We’re also seeing the integration between 3D printing and other disruptive technologies like AI and virtual reality. Those technologies, combined with 3D printing, will significantly reduce production times.
As the market recognises the benefits of 3D printing, I think the adoption rate more widely will just increase exponentially. Ultimately, we’re looking to disrupt traditional manufacturing techniques — and we’re talking about trillions of dollars of business that will become immediately addressable to 3D printing.
How would you advise a company looking to adopt 3D printing but doesn’t know where to start?
That’s one of the challenges we’re seeing repeatedly, and one of the things we’re really focused on is bringing the technology to a wider audience.
Small and medium-sized businesses understand that the Industry 4.0 revolution is coming, but it’s hard for them to adopt — either because they don’t have the internal talent pool or they don’t have the funds to build a full set of capabilities.
My suggestion for these companies is to first understand exactly what your needs are. Understand that 3D printing gives you the ability to take your design and manufacturing capabilities to the next level.
That said, it’s also important to understand the limitations of 3D printing and that adopting the technology isn’t an all-or-nothing approach. Ask yourself, how can 3D printing complement my existing methods and enhance them?
For instance, if you’re currently limited in your design iteration process by working with a remote vendor that takes weeks to return your designs, try investing in a 3D printer, putting it in your environment and compare the time it takes to complete the same process. This will also help you understand how it can be integrated into your wider processes.
Nexa3D showcased its NXE400 machine at CES 2019. Could you explain the key specs of the machine?
NEXE400 is our top-of-the-line printer.
It has a print volume of 16L, a build area of 270mm x 165mm and the tolerances of injection moulding. When you combine that with a speed of up to 1Z centimetre a minute, you’re now able to print many parts very quickly.
On top of that, the front user interface allows you to monitor the print and the lifetime of the membrane. Since the machine is geared for printing large parts, the resin replenishment function is important – we don’t want the user to have to add resin during the print. We’re able to store resin in the machine and manage the resin levels during the print.
We’re also realising that automating the process is important, which is why we’ve designed everything in a way that enables us to streamline the process. We have a washing and curing system set up for automation, for example. Our build plate is designed so that a robotic arm can take the build plate from the printer to the washing and curing station, automating the whole manufacturing and prototyping process.
Our software uses voxel technology to orient the parts and add supports in a smart way, using the learning algorithms that we’ve developed. The interesting thing about voxel technology is that we can now look at the physical properties of the part and make decisions on how to orient the part and add supports based not only on how the part looks, but also on its physical properties. It’s a unique approach to the printing process.
Finally, we’re also developing our own proprietary materials. We have materials geared towards high-speed, engineering and demanding applications. Our partnership with BEGO, a leading dental manufacturer, has been instrumental in this. They have FDA approved resins which, in combination with our resolution and print speeds, are able to print dental parts with tolerances and in speeds currently unheard of.
What does the future hold for Nexa 3D?
We’re looking into faster print times — we’re currently 40 times faster than traditional 3D printing and we want to improve this even more. And since there are applications that require even bigger build areas, we’re looking to increase the print size and volume of our machines.
We’re also focused on producing new flexible and ABS-like materials, as well as materials that can give you longer UV and temperature resistance.
One of the interesting things we’ve noticed is a common belief that you need to be an expert on 3D printing to use a 3D printer. We’re trying to break this paradigm by using smart tools in our software that will enable you to use it at a click of a button.
We’re focused on developing new algorithms for our software that will make 3D printing as transparent and as user-friendly as possible for our customers.
The analogy we often use is “CTRL+P”. We’d ultimately like to have 3D printing as a system where all you have to do is upload a file and the machine takes care of the rest for you.
Finally, we plan to start our early access programs later this year and start shipping our machines in the second half of 2019.
Any final thoughts?
I think the future is very exciting for 3D printing.
It’s fantastic that there are a lot of companies generating a lot of interest and demand in the industry, as well as educating the market on what the technology can do. At Nexa3D, we’re confident that we’ll be able to deliver the next evolution of 3D printing with a technology that will disrupt the industry.
About Izhar Medalsy
Dr. Izhar D. Medalsy is Chief Product Officer of Nexa3D, a manufacturer of ultra-fast industrial-grade 3D printers. Izhar is an experienced technology and product management leader with extensive optical and material science knowledge and expertise.
Prior to NEXA3D, Izhar served as Director of Business Development and Product Management at Wyatt Technology, the world leader in light scattering technology.
Izhar holds a PhD in Physical Chemistry from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem followed by a post-doc research period in biophysics at ETH Zurich, Switzerland.
To learn more about Nexa3D, visit: https://nexa3d.com