Expert Interview: 3DEO’s President Matt Sand on Taking Metal 3D Printing Into High-Volume Production
22 May 2019
When it comes to metal 3D printing, achieving high-volume production is the holy grail for the vast majority of companies. 3DEO, a metal 3D printing company founded in 2016, claims to have achieved just that, thanks to its patented Intelligent Layering technology.
Through its additive manufacturing process, the LA-based company is able to achieve high-volume, repeatable and automated production for metal 3D-printed parts. This week, we’re pleased to be in conversation with 3DEO’s President, Matt Sand, to discuss the benefits of its technology and compare the cost benefits of metal 3D printing versus traditional manufacturing.
Could tell me a bit about 3DEO?
3DEO has invented a new metal 3D printing technology called Intelligent Layering, which is based on binder jetting. Two of the co-founders of 3DEO, Matt Petros and Payman Toabi, received their PhDs in binder jetting-like technology, so they are very familiar with that technology and know a lot about its technical advantages and disadvantages.
Upon graduation, the team invented a completely novel technology, Intelligent Layer, that is completely novel and unique. The proprietary technology is designed specifically for high-volume production, which means it is highly repeatable with a low-cost structure.
The technology we’ve invented achieves these goals. Intelligent Layering, like binder jetting, is a “bind-and sinter” technology. But the way in which 3DEO binds its parts in the printing process is very different. Unlike inkjet 3D printers, our machines use a proprietary spray system. As our 3D printers don’t use inkjet nozzles, we don’t have some of the limitations that inkjet processes do, and we also have a lot of freedom when it comes to the deposition of the binder.
How does 3DEO’s Intelligent Layering process work?
3DEO’s additive process is based on three steps.
First, the machine spreads a thin layer of standard metal injection moulding (MIM) metal powder. Then it sprays a binder onto the entire layer. Lastly, it uses a CNC end-mill to precisely define the shape of the part at each layer.
We use this layer-by-layer milling process to verify the tolerances in a part. As far as I know, we have the best dimensional tolerance of any additive manufacturing process. Right now, we’re printing to tolerances of +/- 0.002 inches per inch (+/- 50 microns). We have the ability to achieve even tighter tolerances in the next generation of our hardware.
Another exciting benefit of our process which helps us to get to production is repeatability. There are no degrading processes in our technology means that the ten thousandth 3D-printed part comes out exactly the same as the first part.
Once we understand how to make a component and deal with different variables like the shrinkage associated with bulk-sintering processes, our process is very robust and repeatable.
Finally, we’re well on our way to fully automating our production line. Manual labour is one of the biggest cost drivers in additive manufacturing. But once you have a fully automated production line that doesn’t require labour to cut parts off the build plate, you can set up a full line that’s just cranking out parts. At this point, the cost structure becomes very competitive with traditional manufacturing.
That’s what we do now. When it comes to small, complex stainless steel parts, our cost structure is currently competitive with traditional manufacturing. We have a number of orders with customers in the tens of thousands of parts. Just a few weeks ago, we began production on our largest order for 28,000 parts.
I believe we’re doing some of the highest volume metal additive manufacturing out there. Hopefully this time next year, we’ll be taking orders in the hundreds of thousands of parts.
How has 3DEO managed to automate the production process?
When you buy a 3D printer off the shelf, you don’t have nearly the flexibility that we have with our machines. Because we invented the technology, we have root access to all of the software, hardware and materials. By owning the technology, we have the flexibility to implement an automation solution.
Was the decision not to sell your printers a deliberate strategic approach? Will that ever change in the future?
Yes, it was definitely deliberate. When you’re looking to get high-quality, end-use components, having the printer is only one part of the process. I might even go so far as to say it’s only 15% to 20% of the total process requirements to produce end-use components.
With that perspective, you can immediately see that selling 3D printers is not really the answer. You need to not only own the printer, but also the whole process, at least from our perspective. So at this point in time, we don’t have any plans to sell our machines.
From which what industries are you seeing the most demand for your technology at the moment?
The benefit of having a technology that makes small, complex parts is that it applies to many different industries. Aerospace, medical and industrial equipment — we have many customers in all those businesses.
What are some of the benefits of metal 3D printing?
We like to compare our technology to MIM because we can make parts at a similar cost point and with a similar quality (if not higher quality). MIM parts are typically 96-97% dense, for example, but 3DEO’s parts are over 99% dense.
When using MIM, manufacturers can spend up to six-digit sums on tooling such as moulds and dies. These tools take 4-6 months to make. I once asked a customer how often they get the mould right the first time, and the answer was “almost never”. It means that you have to spend a couple of months reworking the mould—and all of this happens before you get your first part.
When you compare that to 3D printing, lead time is on average one to two weeks, and we can manufacture a part that at least as good as MIM from a quality perspective, has the same price point, but gives a customer the ultimate design freedom.
Another benefit is that we produce the same machine that fabricates the prototype is also used to make the production part. There are a couple of advantages in this. Normally, when you’re prototyping, you’re using a different technology from the technology used in production. This means that if you do functional testing, you’ll need to re-qualify the process to ensure that it can achieve the same (or better) level of performance as the prototypes.
So if I come over from CNC machining to MIM, I need to do the whole requalification. With AM, you’re using the same technology for prototyping and for production, eliminating this need for requalification.
What role do you see 3D printing playing alongside traditional manufacturing?
There are a couple of main categories where 3D printing fits in. The first category are parts that are specifically designed for additive. In this situation, there is no way traditional manufacturing can make those parts.
There’s a lot of great work coming from GE on design for additive manufacturing. They do a lot of jet engine parts, heat exchangers — quite exotic things that are additively manufactured.
The second category is small, very complex parts. These parts are possible to make with traditional manufacturing, but the piece price is very expensive. Because of this, additive manufacturing could compete from a price point perspective.
When you look at stamping technologies, for example, once you invest in the tooling, you can get parts for pennies. Additive manufacturing will never compete with that. But when you look at investment casting, CNC machining and metal injection moulding — those are the three main processes that are used to make very complex parts.
Considering small, complex parts, which are needed at lower volumes — we’re talking about 50,000 pieces or less — additive manufacturing is going to take a big chunk of that market.
3DEO has announced that it will be increasing its production capacity and introducing new machines. Could you tell us what this means for the company going forward?
You don’t want to add a lot of capacity if the technology isn’t mature enough. But we’re confident enough in our technology, and especially in the next generation hardware that we’re currently implementing, to say that we’re ready to add a lot more capacity. By the end of the year, our capacity will be 20,000 pieces per day.
To put this into perspective, when you look at some of the other additive processes like laser melting, they are capable of producing very small batches, maybe 200 to 300 pieces per day.
How do you see additive manufacturing evolving over the next five years?
It’s exciting to see AM coming into its own. Today everyone’s talking about AM getting into production. We had a hype cycle back in 2012-2013 which got everyone’s hopes up, but the technology wasn’t ready.
But today the technology, the quality and the total investment in R&D and in the processes are all finally coming together to the point where we’re going to see a lot more production applications with 3D printing.
Even within metal 3D printing, there are many different technologies and there’s space for all of them. We see the amazing large jet engine components companies like GE are producing with laser sintering. 3DEO would never make those types of large parts — we really focus on one-inch cube sized parts or smaller. But it’s great to see metal AM maturing and really coming into its own.
What is the biggest challenge the industry still needs to overcome?
The biggest one is quality assurance. When you’re dealing with CNC machining, MIM, or casting, these processes are very well-understood. On the other hand, AM offers a novel way to make metal parts, so the quality is uncertain. A crucial thing then is to make sure that the quality processes are in place to ensure that you’re delivering the customer high-quality parts.
What does 2019 hold for 3DEO?
We’re really focused on our first factory; we have a 13,000 square feet capacity with room for up to 50 machines. By the end of the year, we expect this factor to be as close to fully automated as it can be in manufacturing. We plan to produce tens of thousands of pieces per day. This sets the stage for a massive expansion for us next year. Hopefully, we’ll soon be expanding in Western Europe, which is a particularly interesting market for us.
To learn more about 3DEO, visit: www.3deo.co