4 Promising Automation Trends In Additive Manufacturing04 March 2021
Automating AM processes, from design to post-production, can make AM adoption more appealing to manufacturers.
Automation solutions, from robots to software, can minimise touch labour, save costs, and improve consistency and quality.
But where are we today in terms of automation in additive manufacturing?
The article highlights four key trends driving the development of automation solutions in AM.
1. Design automation
Creating a digital end-to-end workflow in AM starts with automating the design process.
However, design automation in AM is not easy to achieve. Most AM parts are still designed manually, in most cases. The time-consuming, manual AM design process can take several hours of engineer’s work and amount to up to 50% of the total part’s cost, according to one case study.
To make the design process more efficient, software companies within the industry have been evolving their tools over the last few years.
Today the industry can offer automated solutions that speed up the design process and enable engineers to quickly assess design options before printing anything on the machine.
For example, Ford has showcased how automation can reduce the time to design tools from hours to minutes.
By partnering with a German software company, Trinckle, the carmaker gained access to software that could automatically generate the geometry of the tool to fit the contour of the car and form the base of the new jig. With a simple click, engineers could also add elements such as handles, magnet mounts for fixation and edge guides.
Automating the design process for this part has saved several hours of work, reducing the design step to just 10 minutes. Ford believes this approach has the potential to save thousands of Euros per tool.
In another example, hardware manufacturer, Stratasys, collaborated with the software company, nTopology, on a solution that automates the design of jigs and fixtures for the FDM process.
Called the Fixture Generator, this new solution allows engineers to prepare tooling parts in a simple drag-and-drop manner. It does this through the use of nTopology’s topology optimisation software engine, which optimises part designs with the end-use application in mind.
Making the AM design steps less manual signals the continued maturation of the 3D printing industry. Design automation will help AM adopters reduce the time and costs associated with manual design processes.
More importantly, it will support new applications and business models, like mass customisation, by turning the production of design variations into an automated, highly efficient process.
Further reading: 3D Printing and Mass Customisation: Where Are We Today?
2. Open APIs drive AM data sharing automation
The AM industry is becoming more open. The domination of closed, proprietary systems is coming to an end, as more solution providers are looking to create integrated, interoperable 3D printing workflows.
One trend supporting this is the use of open Application Programming Interfaces (APIs). API is a software intermediary that allows one software application to communicate with another. APIs play a critical role in integrating disparate systems.
In AM, where the workflow can be quite complicated and siloed, the industry players are recognising the importance of providing a set of APIs that enable automation and expand the use of data.
Recently several 3D printer manufacturers have released their APIs to partners to enable seamless data flow and integration.
One example is our recent collaboration with HP, whereas HP provided an open API to integrate with our additive MES system. This integration allows HP Multi Jet Fusion users to connect their machines to our software to monitor and collect data about their AM systems.
In a similar vein, Stratasys has announced that it has improved API connectivity to open the door for easier and faster data share between its 3D printers and enterprise software solutions.
These examples point to the fact that the industry is moving in the right direction towards closing the gap between hardware capability and software enablement. APIs will provide the fundamental bridge between the two, helping to create an integrated ecosystem that supports interoperability.
Further reading: 5 Exciting Trends In 3D Printing Software
3. Automating post-production processes
It’s estimated that 46% of businesses’ AM costs are associated with post-processing, according to the PostProcess’ 2nd Annual Post-Printing Trends Report.
Regardless of whether it is a prototype, piece of tooling or an end-use product, most AM parts require some level of post-processing. This may be as simple as removing support material, but can also include sorting, dying, polishing, as well as other processes, before the final product is ready for use. Most of the post-processing tasks are almost entirely reliant on manual labour.
Thanks to recent advances in machine learning and post-processing hardware and software, it is now possible to automate almost every part of AM post-processing, reducing labour costs and significantly improving process efficiency.
New systems are entering the market that allow parts to be extracted from a 3D printer’s build platform automatically and then moved with the help of guided vehicles to the next post-processing station.
A number of AM machine providers have also committed to automation at one level or another. EOS, for example, has developed a Shared Modules concept that integrates equipping, unpacking, transporting and sieving stages of the AM workflow, by combining different modules, transport systems and a control centre software.
Looking to automate the binder jetting process, metal binder jetting specialist, ExOne, has also released a concept of its new X1D1 automated guided vehicle (AGV), designed to enable efficient transport of build boxes.
What’s also exciting is the growing use of multi-axis robotic systems that carry parts from the 3D printers to the powder sieving, cleaning and finishing stations.
Hardware company Renishaw has showcased how the use of robots can automate one of the most time-consuming processes in metal AM – support removal. The company partnered with a start-up, Additive Automations, which has developed a robotic system for automated support removal.
Early results showed that robotic automation of support removal could reduce the average cost per part by a whopping 25%. The robots used in this process have integrated force sensors, which collect data to determine the geometry of AM parts.
The software then analyses the data, using digital twin technology. The output is then used to determine where the support structures are so that they can be removed using an end-effector tool.
Furthermore, some companies, like AM Flow, specialise in modular solutions that offer quick and automated AM part identification, along with sorting, picking, bagging and transportation. Going forward, AM Flow wants to develop automated ID tagging, which will pave the way for full track and trace capability for AM parts across an end-to-end digitalised workflow.
Automating post-processing in AM completely changes the economics when scaling up the use of technology. It enables much higher flexibility in the factory layout and makes it feasible for manufacturers to adopt this technology for digital, rapid production.
Further reading: Combining 3D Printing and Robotics to Create Smart Factories
4. Automating 3D printing order handling and AM production management
In addition to direct costs associated with manual post-processing, there are also hidden costs such as worker’s time for quoting parts and handling AM orders and operator’s time for scheduling print jobs.
Calculating part costs, entering data into spreadsheets and scheduling production using clunky solutions can take several hours a day of worker’s time, limiting the productivity of AM.
With AM maturing rapidly, companies soon realised that they need to automate AM production management processes to ensure scalable growth.
The need for greater production efficiency kickstarted the development of workflow management and manufacturing execution software (MES) geared toward AM technology.
More on MES: The Beginner’s Guide to Additive Manufacturing Execution Systems
Today, additive MES and workflow software can help companies free up labour costs through automation by digitising previously manual processes.
For example, a 3D printing facility of a global 2D printing and IT company is using AMFG’s MES software for quoting 3D printing parts and managing orders. By shifting from spreadsheets to an automated solution, the company was able to reduce the quotation time by almost 80%.
Automating order handling and production management processes in additive manufacturing will ultimately help move AM beyond just being a tool for low-volume applications. It will form the basis for scalable, integrated and cost-effective mass production.
Further reading: Solving additive manufacturing challenges with MES
How far are we from a fully automated AM factory?
Automation of AM processes, from design to finishing, has tremendous potential for capital savings by reducing labour costs and increasing productivity.
As was shown in a pilot project called NextGenAM, automation can reduce production costs by as much as 50%. Furthermore, automated manufacturing can introduce more consistency into the process by minimising human errors and scrap.
Automation solutions available on the market today have evolved significantly from the early-stage projects and pilots they were just a few years ago.
To fully benefit from AM automation, companies need to begin the transformation today to be able to turn their experience into a competitive advantage faster.
As with many technological transformations, the early movers and risk-takers willing to bet on automation in AM will reap the rewards of the digital manufacturing of the future.
Discover how you can transform AM through workflow automation
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