4 Additive Manufacturing Challenges That Can Be Solved with Software

06 March 2019
3D printing

When it comes to adopting additive manufacturing, most companies will find that it’s not a case of simply buying a machine and producing parts right away.
For all the benefits of 3D printing, successfully implementing the technology means considering a number of factors. Which design tools will be used? How will you ensure a seamless workflow management process? And what about security?
Trying to find answers to all of these questions can, at times, be daunting for companies looking to adopt 3D printing for purposes beyond rapid prototyping. Fortunately, software solutions have emerged to help solve these challenges across the various stages of the AM workflow. These solutions are enabling 3D printing to step beyond its limitations and become a truly digital manufacturing technology.
Below, we explore the ways in which various software is currently helping to deal with four key challenges that many companies face when first implementing AM.

1. Designing for additive

Additive manufacturing is expanding the limits of what is possible with industrial design. When coupled with 3D printing technologies, advanced design tools like topological optimisation and generative design software help to overcome conventional design limitations, bringing to the fore new possibilities like lattice structures and part consolidation.  
That said, designing for additive remains a challenge for many engineers.
One reason for this is the tendency to view design for AM through the lens of traditional manufacturing. However, simply applying traditional design approaches to additive manufacturing won’t work, since the requirements for each are vastly different.
When designing for AM, there will be many considerations to take into account, including support structures (How many? Where should they be located?) and part orientation, to name just a few. Issues that arise with these and other design elements can lead to further inefficiencies during the production and post-processing stages.
Take support structures as an example. Supports are used to prevent issues like distortion and collapse within a part. Particularly with metal 3D printing, supports are virtually always a vital addition to the design process.   
It’s useful to minimise the number of support structures when designing for AM, as this helps to reduce printing and post-processing time, as well as the amount of material used. One of the ways to reduce the amount of supports is to redesign a part so it needs as few supports as possible. However, redesigning a part to eliminate supports or integrate them into the product itself can be a very time-consuming process, if done manually. 
To make the process somewhat easier, solutions from the likes of Autodesk, Additive Works and Materialise are offering ways to automate support creation using software.
For example, Materialise’s e-Stage for Metal software can automatically generate support structures for metal components. According to the company, designers can reduce the time to generate supports by 90%. The resulted supports are thin and easy to remove and reportedly can drive the time spent on metal support removal down by 50%.
Finding the right part orientation is another common challenge faced during the design and build preparation process.
Correctly orienting and nesting (optimally arranging parts on the build platform) parts has the advantage of helping to achieve a combination of the best possible printing time, surface quality and material consumption.
Software solutions are also starting to emerge, developed to help with the task of preparing a print build for print (also known as ‘build preparation’).
Build preparation tools enable users to optimise 3D designs, preparing them for printing. Engineers can use build preparation tools to establish the optimal part orientation and position on the build plate, set print parameters and identify any design issues prior to printing.
The companies mentioned above provide build preparation functionality as part of their design and CAD offerings. In addition to that, one novel example comes from London-based start-up Betatype. The company has developed its own approach to optimise the print preparation process for metal 3D printing. Its data processing platform, Engine, uses a variety of optimisation algorithms, which the company uses to lower printing time and maximise machine usage.

Betatype’s Spinal Cage Production Build [Image credit: Betatype]

A recent case study from  Betatype offers a glimpse into its optimisation models for orthopaedic implants production.
One of the most exciting approaches involved stacking numerous implants together by using special lattice node supports. This approach allowed the company to make full use of the entire build space of the 3D printer. Additionally, it enabled support removal using sandblasting techniques, eliminating the need for manual support removal.
3D printing more parts in a single build and reducing the need for post-processing is a winning formula, helping to reduce cost-per-part for metal 3D printing while achieving faster machine amortisation. etatype’s example illustrates how this can be achieved with the help of powerful software.  
The design optimisation process for additive manufacturing can be quite demanding. However, with modern design and build preparation software, designers and engineers can find an optimum design, orientation and support strategy to help them achieve consistent and cost-efficient production.

2.Trial-and-error with metal 3D printing

Metal 3D printing is rapidly evolving, but the technology still requires quite a bit of trial-and-error to successfully 3D print metal parts. To be viable for production, the metal AM processes must be predictable and repeatable. However, the reality is that failure rates are still quite high.
When it comes to metal 3D printing, there a number of variables that can impact the quality of a part, including material quality, layer thickness, laser or beam power and gas flow.
Typically, engineers will need to try different printing parameters to work out the right combination that will enable them to complete the printing process successfully. This, however, makes successfully 3D printing metal parts difficult to achieve the first time, leading to a lot of time-consuming and costly tryouts.
Simulation software is one way to increase the chances of success when 3D printing metal parts. Simulation can be used to model the behaviour of a part under a range of conditions. But with metal 3D printing, simulation is now increasingly used to provide an insight into the manufacturing process itself.
ANSYS logoLet’s take ANSYS as an example. The engineering software company offers a range of simulation and design tools, aimed at helping engineers achieve successful 3D-printed metal parts. Its Additive Suite offering allows users to analyse microstructure properties and the behaviour of a part before the printing process begins.
“With the arrival of additive manufacturing, we saw that there was not only a need to simulate the product and how it will be used, but also to simulate the process itself, due to the nature of the additive manufacturing process. This includes looking at things like part distortion and potential fracture and cracking,” says ANSYS’ Dave Conover.
Simulating the printing process allows companies to build a model, looking at different phases of the build process. For example, such a model can capture how the material will heat up, melt and solidify in the machine. This information, generated by simulation software, can then be used to predict the material’s structure, porosity, distortion and residual stress, enabling engineers to fine-tune process parameters to avoid potential issues.  
Software company, Simufact, has demonstrated how virtual engineering can be applied to reduce the number of try-out steps during the manufacturing of a hood hinge. In a collaborative project with EDAG and voestalpine, Simufact’s software was used to simulate distortion and residual stresses in the printed component before production.
By leveraging simulation, engineers were able to run the build process virtually and view the realistic deformation behaviour of a part. The resulted simulation data enabled the engineers to gain valuable insight into how to compensate for the distortion of a hinge without wasting time and material through trial-and-error printing.

Simufact’s simulation software was used to optimise the design of a 3D-printed simulation hood hinge [Image credit: Simufact]

3. Managing workflows

Whether you’re 3D printing parts for clients as a service bureau or a company using 3D printing in-house, organising and managing the production workflow is crucial. However, many companies are using inefficient tools to handle vital tasks like managing requests, planning and scheduling production, tracking parts and managing delivery timelines.
While some use multiple software solutions together, including CAD, PLM and ERP, others rely on generic project management tools like Trello or simple Excel. Whatever system is chosen, all will inevitably lead to a number of day-to-day challenges.  
For example, production managers are limited in their ability to get real-time insights into the status of the production when using spreadsheets. Similarly, using different software tools often leads to manual re-entering of data, eating up a lot of time.
Without an adequate end-to-end workflow system in place, companies will struggle to measure performance, estimate delivery dates and, most importantly, scale. This is a particularly important point, as when production capacity grows, so too will the need for the right software architecture to support this growth.
To alleviate these pain points in workflow management, workflow software, tailored to the specific needs of additive manufacturing, should be considered. An efficient end-to-end workflow platform helps to streamline the steps from order placement to post-production checks, giving a company full visibility over the additive manufacturing workflow.
A case in point is Bowman Additive Production. The AM  division of bearings manufacturer, Bowman International, is using AM workflow software to manage each stage of its production process for 3D printed bearings.
For example, the Bowman team can automatically receive requests directly through its software platform, as opposed to just via email as it was in the past. Additionally,, the company uses the software to allocate parts to a build and check the status of each build, keeping track of the machine’s workload and availability.
With an ever-growing production capacity, adopting the workflow automation software enabled Bowman to significantly streamline the production process, achieving a higher level of efficiency and throughput.

4. Ensuring data security

With more companies adopting additive manufacturing for production, protecting IP and securing the AM digital thread has never been more important.
3D printing enables companies to maintain virtual inventories with digital designs of parts that can be sent to any facility over the globe and manufactured on-site and at the point of need. By doing so, companies can reduce their inventories, driving down storage costs.
The all-digital ecosystem of additive manufacturing, however, raise some cybersecurity concerns.
The digital files contain valuable data about how components are designed and should be produced. When such files are distributed digitally, it becomes challenging to prevent the theft or tampering of data. This can lead to illegal re-distribution and replication of products, ultimately impacting the integrity of a company’s intellectual property.
To address these pressing concerns, AM-specific security software solutions are being developed. For example, LEO Lane is a company that provides a cloud-based solution to secure digital assets.
LEOLane_distributed_additive manufacturing

By encrypting the design file, designs cannot be accessed without authorisation. An IP owner can also build in instructions into an encrypted file, controlling the quality and quantity of their parts and products each time they are produced.
This is achieved by specifying the type of machine the design will be printed on, the type of materials, and the allowed number of prints – thus ensuring that the party which receives a file won’t print the part as many times as they want.

AM software: a key element to production success

As we’ve seen, when it comes to adopting 3D printing technologies, software is just as important a consideration as hardware or materials.
For companies to successfully utilise additive manufacturing, the technology must prove repeatable, secure, and easy to use. These are the challenges, for which AM software may be just the right solution.
From new design tools to streamlined and secured workflows, software will play a key role in helping companies establish robust AM facilities, enabling them to take advantage of the vast opportunities additive manufacturing has to offer.


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