3D Printing Software: Achieving True Digital Production

05 December 2019
Engineering for additive manufacturing

The capabilities of 3D printing software are growing, as the industry continues to mature. 

Historically, the 3D printing software segment has tended to lag behind those of hardware and materials. However, exciting developments in recent years show that this segment is quickly catching up, enabling companies to create complex designs faster, increase print success rates, ensure part quality and manage workflows more efficiently. 

With software being the key to viable production with 3D printing, we take a look at the developments making this possible. 

Take a look at the other articles covered in this series: 

How the 3D Printing Hardware Market is Evolving in 2021

The Evolution of 3D Printing Materials Market: Trends and Opportunities Ahead

Post-Processing for Industrial 3D Printing: Key Trends You Should Know

3D printing software vendors Additive Manufacturing Landscape 2020 1
AM software landscape in 2020 [Image credit: AMFG's Additive Manufacturing Landscape 2020]

Design and CAD software: Creating AM-specific tools 

Until recently, Computer-Aided Design (CAD) software hadn’t been optimised for the design requirements of 3D printing. 

Additive manufacturing (AM) offers the benefits of greater design complexity. However, these benefits come with the need for a different design approach, often referred to as Design for AM (DfAM).

Designing for AM offers unique challenges and opportunities not found in the traditional design methods. It entails the creation of new design practices, aimed at material reduction and exploration of complex design features. 

Therefore, it requires relevant tools to enable engineers to take full advantage of the design flexibility of AM. 

Slowly but surely, these tools have begun to appear on the market. The biggest push has come from big software companies like Autodesk, Altair, Dassault Systems and PTC, which have been developing AM design capabilities within the scope of their CAD solutions. 

For example, Autodesk, as part of a major investment in AM technology, is aiding design preparation for 3D printing through its Netfabb suite. 

Netfabb enables engineers to import, analyse and repair models from a variety of CAD formats and identify areas that require supports. Netfabb can also be used to semi-automatically generate support structures and modify models so they are optimised for production.

DfAM has also been recognised as the next frontier for PTC’s Creo CAD platform. In the new release, Creo 6.0 offers built-in support for the specialised geometric modelling needed to create lightweighting features including stochastic foam, conformal latticework, formula-driven lattices and custom lattices. 

Furthermore, 3D printing build orientation and support structures can be analysed and optimised in Creo 6.0, saving time in both build production and post-printing handling, according to the company.

Advanced design software 

A handful of companies are also developing CAD solutions specifically for advanced engineering. One example is nTopology, which has recently released nTop Platform, developed to solve engineering problems where geometry is a bottleneck. 

A computational-based solution, nTop integrates CAD, simulation and computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) capabilities to help engineering teams create complex and optimised geometries. 

Ntopology Ntop Platform
Ntopology's generative design Ntop software [Image credit: nTopology]

For example, engineers can use nTop to reduce the weight and maximise the performance of parts. They can also apply multiple loading conditions and optimise for a variety of performance criteria, including stress, displacement, stiffness, and weight – the process known as topology optimisation

What’s also interesting, is that the software is capable of slicing parts, thus avoiding error-prone STL files and exporting manufacturing data directly to machines.

Another company pushing the envelope for 3D printing design software is Hexagon. Earlier this year it acquired AMendate, a German provider of topology optimisation software for AM. AMendate has now been added to the MSC Software arm of Hexagon, which resulted in the launch of MSC Apex Generative Design software. 

The new design optimisation solution improves quality through automation of design processes, combined with embedded manufacturing knowledge.

The software is said to produce a part design, ready for AM within a few hours – a fraction of the time usually required. This improves productivity by up to 80 per cent, compared to alternative topology optimisation solutions. 

‘While a number of software solutions for design generation do exist and are currently on the market, there are limitations to their capabilities. They’re very time-consuming to use, for example. They also lack full automation, and the designs that can be created aren’t complex enough for real-life business challenges’, stated Thomas Reiher, Co-founder of AMendate and now Director of Generative Design at MSC. 

Advanced design tools, developed with AM processes in mind, will be key to overcoming those challenges and enabling a greater number of innovative 3D printing uses. 

Introducing STL alternatives

To be able to 3D print a designed model, engineers typically need to convert the original CAD file into STL. 

STL is currently the most popular file format for 3D printing, which describes a three-dimensional object as a series of linked triangles (polygons). Despite its popularity, the file format has a lot of limitations, which become even more apparent when using 3D printing to design complex production parts.  

For example, STL will not read your original design’s colours, textures and other design information. 

Moreover, changes made to the STL file will not automatically be reflected in the original design file in CAD, adding a layer of inefficiency to the design process. 

Finally, when modelling complex geometries or increasing the number of triangles to improve resolution, there’s a risk of drastically ballooning the size of an STL file to the point when it’s too large for 3D printers to read.

To overcome these challenges, the industry is working on creating alternative file formats. The most promising one, so far, is 3MF, developed by the 3MF Consortium.

3MF enables 3D printers to read CAD design files in full-fidelity, with the colours, textures and other design data intended by the original designer. It’s also meant to be extensible and adaptable to emerging 3D printing technology.

Simulation Software: Predicting errors to improve repeatability

Simulation software remains a big focus for 3D printing software development. The key reason for this is the potential to reduce, or even eliminate, the trial and error approach currently used to achieve repeatable 3D printing results. 

Deformation simulation ANSYS
A simulation of how part will deform under load [Image credit: ANSYS]

Simulation is typically used at the design stage to digitally reproduce how a material would behave during the printing process. It means that simulation results can provide insight into how a design could be optimised to prevent build failure.  

Today, the majority of simulation solutions are geared towards metal 3D printing. This is due to the fact that the technology comes with a number of complex technical challenges. There are a lot of variables that can affect the build during the printing process, for example, the path and intensity of the laser and the design of the support structures. 

Simulation helps analyse the complex phenomena that occur during the metal 3D printing process and uses simulation data to plan the build, selecting the most successful part orientation and support strategies. 

In 2019, there are many AM simulation solutions, from bigger companies like ANSYS and Siemens, to smaller software companies offering solely AM-dedicated solutions, such as Additive Works. 

Engineering software company, ANSYS, is one example. Since the beginning of 2019, the company has released three major updates, which feature many new functionalities. 

One update that stands out is ANSYS Additive Prep. This tool is a part of the ANSYS Additive Suite and ANSYS Additive Print software packages. 

Among its features is the ability to produce heat maps that help engineers predict how AM build orientations impact support structures, build times, distortions and overall print performance. 

In the latest R3 release, ANSYS Additive Prep has also been enhanced with a new build processor, which allows users to export a build file directly to an AM machine, thus bypassing the need to use an STL file. There’s also a tool to predict the effects of heat treatment, on the horizon for 2020.

More recently, Altair has launched a new manufacturing simulation solution for AM called Inspire Print3D.

Aimed specifically at Selective Laser Melting (SLM), the software is said to provide a fast and accurate toolset to design and simulate the manufacturing process.

Key software features include support structure generation within the same environment as the designed part, advanced thermo-mechanical simulation to reduce post-processing and avoid expensive errors, identification of large deformations, excessive heating and delamination, and the ability to validate and create files ready for 3D printing.

In the domain of polymer 3D printing, e-Xstream, which was acquired by MSC Software Corporation in 2013, is one of the few companies focused on polymer and composite AM technologies.

The company has developed Digimat-AM software solution for the simulation of the FDM and SLS processes. The program helps predict printing issues, like warpage and compensate distortion. Furthermore, the latest release of Digimat 2019.0 also offers a simulation of fibre reinforced material models for material systems from DSM, Solvay Specialty Polymers and Stratasys Inc.

As a long-term goal, e-Xstream will rely on its expertise in material modelling to address multi-materials printing.

Being able to 3D print parts correctly the first time is one of the key factors that will play into greater adoption of the technology. In future, we’ll likely see simulation software being paired with emerging in-process monitoring capabilities. This will allow engineers to confirm the expected simulated outcomes with real-time build data, ultimately achieving higher print success rates. 

Additive Manufacturing Execution Systems: Enabling workflow management & traceability

Over the past several years, 3D printing has begun to shift from a process used for prototyping and manufacturing of small batches, to large batch production. This shift has revealed the need for software that can help companies manage the increasing production volumes and scale their AM operations more efficiently. 

This has led to the rise of the Manufacturing Execution System (MES) software, developed specifically for the needs of the AM industry. 

AMFG additive MES overview
Advanced additive MES helps to organises teams, data and processes

MES software helps to connect the dots in the AM workflow, be it request management, production scheduling or post-processing planning. The overarching goal of MES is to provide the control needed for successful AM production, maximising machine utilisation rates, introducing greater automation and increasing traceability.  

A key trend driving the growth of the MES software segment is the need for an end-to-end platform, flexible enough to be customised to the individual requirements of AM departments. Only very few companies are currently offering such a solution. 

Introducing machine connectivity

The networking of machines and machine data is also becoming a major requirement, as companies increasingly digitise their operations. MES software will be playing a greater role in enabling this, as it allows different 3D printers to connect on one platform. 

For example, AMFG offers machine connectivity with a range of AM systems, like EOS and HP. It means that AM system users will be able to manage their entire AM operations with AMFG’s MES, whilst simultaneously connecting directly with their machines through the software platform.

Connecting machines within a single platform will enable seamless data flow, which will provide traceability and scalability needed to help push AM to industrialisation.

MES software is also gradually integrating the functions of other software. For example, some solutions offer the capability to heal STL files and prepare models for printing. 

Another example is the integration of Quality Assurance (QA) management functions. AMFG’s MES platform, for example,  allows users to import documentation, be it reports, datasheets, or 3D images, and compare them against the physical 3D-printed part, thus ensuring that QA requirements are met. 

Like the design software, MES platforms lend themselves to being paired with Artificial Intelligence (AI) solutions. 

3D printing workflows are very data-heavy, meaning that there is a lot of information about order statuses, machine and materials data, that can (and should be), not only monitored and collected but also analysed and acted upon.

Integrating AI algorithms enables the software to analyse the collected data and suggest where improvements to the production operations could be made. Ultimately, it can provide greater visibility into where key bottlenecks are and how to optimise the process to achieve greater productivity.  

Quality Assurance software 

Numerous companies are working to qualify 3D-printed parts to be able to use them in production. Currently, the two most common ways to certify a part that meets QA requirements – destructive testing and CT scanning – are expensive, time-consuming, wasteful and don’t always yield accurate results.

The more efficient way to assist the QA process is through in-process monitoring. Typically, in-process monitoring involves the combination of sensors and cameras placed inside a 3D printer, with software that can analyse the data gathered by sensors and deliver it in a meaningful way. 

One company offering such a combination is Sigma Labs. Its software package, called PrintRite3D®, features the modules INSPECT, CONTOUR and ANALYTICS. For example, the INSPECT module can measure the melt pool (the pool of molten metal liquid produced while the laser is heating up the powder) to detect and predict anomalies. 

sigma ted 780x405
3D Thermal Mapping and Imaging using Thermal Emission Density [Image credit: Sigma Labs]

Sigma Lab’s PrintRite3D software is one of the few third-party solutions. In the majority of cases, metal 3D printer manufacturers develop QA software in-house. However, the number of machines integrated with QA software is still disappointingly low.

For example, there are EOS 3D printers, which feature the EOSTATE MeltPool tool and VELO3D’s Sapphire 3D printer, that was recently integrated with new Assure software. 

Quality assurance is becoming the new watchword in the AM world, as companies want to accelerate part validation and ultimately reduce variation in the print process. It means that there should be more QA software solutions appearing – and this trend is already beginning to take shape slowly.

AM software in the spotlight: A fast-maturing segment 

Compared to hardware, the development of software for AM has historically been slower. There has also been a much smaller number of AM software companies, which has had an impact on the level of innovation seen in this segment.

However, this has changed dramatically over the last few years, as the industry continues to mature and more advanced solutions appear on the market. From CAD to simulation to workflow solutions, the software is being developed to take AM to production in a faster and easier way. 

Going forward, the pace of this progress is likely to accelerate, helping AM to become a true digital manufacturing solution.


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