The Future of 3D Printing: 12 Key Takeaways from AMFG’s AM Landscape Digital Conference 2020 (Part 1)
14 May 2020
In April, AMFG brought together 3D printing professionals and experts in our first Additive Manufacturing Landscape Digital Conference 2020, where we shared perspectives and insights into the current state of the industry.
The conference’s common themes revolved around the ongoing efforts in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, the role of 3D printing in supply chains, and the continued maturation of additive manufacturing (AM) technology, materials and software.
For those who couldn’t attend the conference, we’ve put together this article exploring key learnings from the AM Landscape conference. You can also check out our YouTube channel to watch each of the speaker’s presentations online.
1. The industry continues to grow
Victoria Akinsowon, Senior Marketing Manager at AMFG, kicked off the conference with her keynote speech that outlined the state of the AM industry in 2020.
Despite the worldwide battle with the COVID-19 pandemic, the 3D printing technology continues its industrialisation journey. In addition to external factors, new players continue to enter the AM market, while acquisitions and partnerships continue to flourish across the industry.
The growth of the industry is particularly evident in AMFG’s upcoming infographic on the Additive Manufacturing Landscape 2020.
Alongside industry maturation, connectivity, both at the machine and workflow levels, and collaboration grow as key themes driving the industry forward.
2. Materials are only one piece of the 3D printing puzzle
High-performance polymers are creating numerous opportunities for advanced 3D printing applications across industries like aerospace, medical and automotive.
In the first presentation at the conference, Brian Alexander, Global Product & Business Development Manager at Solvay, dived into the development of high-performance plastics for 3D printing and the way they unlock new applications for the technology.
The process of developing high-performance materials ‘is not an easy journey’, said Brian, and it requires collaboration on all fronts.
‘There are three major parts to additive manufacturing. It’s like a three-legged stool: you can have as many materials as you like, but if you don’t have the equipment and the processing capabilities to process them, the stool is going to fall over.’
That’s why Solvay has been working on combining the process understanding and the equipment knowledge for the last three to four years, to be able to bring high-performance polymers to the market.
Today, Solvay is considered to be the market leader for PEEK filaments, and the company is also developing powdered materials for powder bed fusion processes, like SLS.
As it’s important to know how to process materials, it’s also crucial to understand how to best leverage the design for AM.
On this point, Alexander highlighted the need for simulation, which allows engineers to predict how the material will behave once printed. Simulation results help to optimise the design of a part, with the ultimate goal of improving its mechanical properties and preventing part failure.
Only by combining the knowledge about the materials, processes and design, is it possible to open the door for more reliable use of 3D printing across different stages of the product life cycle.
3. Software and automation are crucial for enabling mass customisation with 3D printing
Mass customisation enables companies to cost-effectively produce batches of tens of items, compared to the batches of tens of millions that are typically produced through mass production.
That, in and of itself, is a challenging shift, but there is one technology that enables it – and that is 3D printing.
The next presenter, Timm Kragl, Senior Consultant at Phanos GmbH, a 3D printing consulting firm, explored how 3D printing allows companies to produce customised parts today, the typical workflow and the challenges it involves. For example, one question that arises when using 3D printing to produce customised parts, is how to identify very similar parts that were printed in one build.
Timm Kragl pointed out several ways, including the printed label, 3D scanning and the comparison to the 3D file.
However, it was also noted that different applications would very likely require different approaches to identifying customised parts and conducting QA checks.
According to Kragl, advanced software and workflow automation will be crucial to the successful use of 3D printing for part customisation. The solutions include 3D scanning, augmented reality, the use of QR codes and MES software to enable data transfer and traceability.
4. Key pillars supporting the transition to additive production
In the most visual presentation of the AM Landscape conference, James Ashby, Additive Production Development Manager UK at Bowman AP, discussed what it means to use 3D printing for production.
Ashby argued that manufacturing rests on four pillars: traceability, repeatability, accuracy and verification.
When it comes to traceability, having a serial number on the part allows Bowman AP to know when the part was built, the batch of material that went into it, how it was inspected and what parameters were involved in the process.
Equally important is to have a repeatable system.
‘If you’re not building with a repeatable system, if you’re building with something that you have to tweak and play about with, if you’re not sure what the changes are halfway through the build, you’re building models, not customer parts’, stated Ashby.
The third pillar – accuracy – means tolerances required by the customer. And finally, a manufacturer using AM for production must be able to verify the build parameters, the materials back to the source and the inspection process.
‘When you’re putting things into automotive, aerospace, military, orthotics, prosthetics, you must be able to verify what you do. If you can’t, you’re making models’, said Ashby.
The shift to production with 3D printing requires any manufacturer to consider these four pillars, and Ashby insists that only when all four elements are factored in, can you claim that you’re making production parts, not just prototypes.
5. Large-format 3D printing continues to mature
Large-format 3D printing is coming to the fore as a cost-effective and flexible solution for manufacturing large parts. BigRep is one company driving the development of large-format polymer 3D printers.
In his presentation, Martin Back, Managing Director of BigRep, dived into how the company supports supply chains with its large-format AM solutions.
Production aids and casting patterns are currently the most popular applications for BigRep 3D printers. However, around 20 per cent of the company’s customers are using large-format 3D printing for production parts, like electronic housings and on-demand spare parts for trains.
One example of a production part, highlighted by Back, is a plastic box for transporting different parts, manufactured for Airbus.
Traditionally, the production of this box is outsourced, which leads to long lead times and the inability to produce on-demand.
Large-format 3D printing resolves these challenges by offering the ability to produce locally. This means that parts can be manufactured on-demand, and the lead times can be cut down from several weeks to just a few days.
One notable advancement in large-format 3D printing, particularly with BigRep’s solutions, has arguably been the introduction of the Metering Extruder Technology (MXT).
MXT is a new approach to extruding plastic material that makes the process much faster. The MXT system reportedly makes BigRep’s latest printers five times faster than current extrusion machines and helps to achieve much greater precision.
Back summed up his presentation by saying that while large-format 3D printing continues to evolve, the key challenge to its wider adoption remains the lack of expertise.
‘We need to make it easy for people to use additive. It needs to become an everyday tool.’ By that, Back means that we need to simplify the design creation and data handling processes, among other things.
‘Slowly, we’re getting there’, he concluded.
6. Software can help eliminate 3D printing workflow bottlenecks
The transition of 3D printing to production reveals not only new opportunities but also a lot of new challenges. AMFG’s Felix Dörr shed light on the most common bottlenecks in the 3D printing workflow and how software can solve them.
Felix states that the workflow challenges, like the lack of an adequate system for request and project management, are being successfully addressed today. However, one area of the AM workflow remains largely overlooked – post-production and QA management.
Many manufacturers are looking to optimise their machine capacity and utilisation rates, producing more and more parts.
However, too often these parts still cannot be delivered to the customer. Due to inefficient, highly manual post-processing management, parts are piling up during post-processing steps, then waiting in quality assurance stations to be checked before being approved and shipped out to the customers.
‘If you don’t solve these issues in post-processing and quality management, you don’t have a solid workflow overall’, said Dörr.
The key takeaway from the presentation is that to take full advantage of AM, all the processes and workflow steps must be connected and integrated.
A big part of the solution is intelligent workflow software, developed with the needs and requirements of AM technology in mind. Also known as Manufacturing Execution System (MES), such software supports manufacturers in planning, managing and executing all processes related to AM production.
In his presentation, Dörr stressed that MES software doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and its advancement requires industry collaborations and standardisation.
‘It’s important to create standards so that we have easy ways to connect to machines, to other software packages and to suppliers’, he continued. ‘Only if we work together to create new standards, will we make additive manufacturing more attractive for production.’
This is Part 1 of the conference takeaways. Stay tuned for Part 2 which we’ll share next week!