The perception that additive manufacturing is strictly a prototyping technology is quickly going by the wayside, largely thanks to companies which are using AM for production applications. One of the companies pushing AM production steadily ahead and which is proving its viability for making end-parts is California-based 3DEO.
The company, founded in 2016, leverages its proprietary Intelligent Layering® process—a sort of binder jetting and milling hybrid—to deliver low cost, high quality parts to its clients. We recently caught up with 3DEO Vice President Lance Kallman to talk about how the company is going beyond conceptions about additive manufacturing by using it exclusively for production manufacturing.
“The company was founded by two mechanical engineering PhDs out of the University of Southern California who were working in the additive manufacturing subset of the department,” Kallman says of the company’s beginnings. “They were working on binder jetting technology and they weren’t happy with the inconsistent quality, so when they graduated they set out to create a new low-cost metal 3D printing technology. They ended up partnering with an MBA out of UCLA, and the three of them founded 3DEO to go after this low-cost production metal 3D printing challenge.”
3DEO’s Intelligent Layering® process, he goes on to explain, starts out as many other metal AM processes do: with a fine metal powder. “We primarily use 17-4 PH stainless steel,” he says. “We spread a 100-micron layer of powder onto the print surface. Next—and this is where we differ from binder jetting which uses inkjet heads to selectively spray the binder—we spray the entire metal powder layer using a proprietary spraying system that applies the binder very evenly across the entire layer.
“The result is a hard, thin layer of metal powder which is then milled using micro end mills. The CNC operation cuts out the part perimeter for that layer. So we’re creating green parts by doing a machining process that is repeated layer by layer. Once the green parts are completed, they are taken to a sintering furnace.”
“The back end is similar to metal injection moulding (MIM). Compared to MIM, the big benefit of Intelligent Layering® is that we don’t have nearly as much binder content because we don’t have to flow it throughout the cavity like they do. This means that we don’t have a de-bind stage, we simply put the parts into the furnace and we can sinter to over 99.5% density.”
Meeting and exceeding standards
Speaking now of the parts that come out of the sintering furnace, Kallman emphasizes that 3DEO holds itself to MPIF Standard 35 at a minimum. Many material attributes are actually much higher than MIM and closer to wrought metal properties, making it the first additive manufacturing company to achieve this. By meeting the MPIF standard, Kallman says it is easier to bring clients on board for part production.
“Engineers understand our parts,” he explains. “At the end of the day, we’re sintering powdered metal and that’s a process that has become very well known in the past few decades. It’s much easier for people to get their heads around that than micro-welding layers on top of each other and trying to figure out what those properties are, which is the case with laser sintering.”
Presently, 3DEO’s California facility operates eight of its AM machines and Kallman says they are highly scalable thanks to the technology itself being relatively low cost compared to other industrial metal AM systems on the market.
“The lead time on new machines is six weeks, so it’s seamless for the company to scale production,” he says. “For us, our ability to scale is customer driven. For example, we just got an 18,000 piece order over a 12 month period so to support that we are bringing a couple more machines online right now. We’re currently running eight active machines and we have the infrastructure right now to have up to 50 machines running in our 13,000 square foot facility.”
In terms of how many parts 3DEO turns out every month, Kallman explains that it is highly dependent on the size of the parts ordered. “We are focusing on smaller components now,” he says. “Parts with a high level of complexity, but which are small enough that we can produce a lot of them. We try to get recurring monthly orders and we typically turn out anywhere between 100 and 5,000 parts per month.”
3DEO’s Intelligent Layering® technology is currently only offered to clients through the company’s production service. When asked if there are plans to commercialize the AM process, Kallman suggests that it is a possibility, though that the company’s priorities lie elsewhere for the time being.
“We strongly prefer the parts business. So do our customers. In our experience, the majority of customers want to buy parts, not invest in capital equipment,” he says. By limiting its technology to its own production service, 3DEO not only ensures high quality but also keeps its AM platform flexible and primed for innovation. Plus, owning the end-to-end process is critical to achieving a low cost structure.
“We’re keeping our machines at max flexibility so we can do some really interesting things and also control the process,” Kallman adds. “We’re a 25-person company right now so we’re focusing our engineering resources on projects that make sense and that have value for us. We’re focused as a management team on projects and opportunities that can help us grow as a business.”
Production > Prototyping
In line with this, 3DEO exclusively works with clients who are interested in utilizing its AM technology for production parts. Projects, Kallman specifies, inevitably involve prototype runs to build confidence with clients, but 3DEO has consciously stayed away from labelling itself as a prototyping firm.
“We are being judicious about only looking at orders that have the potential to be production,” he says. “We certainly get a lot of enquiries on prototyping, but we’re trying to politely guide our messaging to show that we are squarely focused on production.”
Looking at the AM industry at large, Kallman suggests that metal additive manufacturing will still remain limited in its production scope as long as its costs do not match those of traditional manufacturing. On a slightly more hopeful note, however, Kallman also says that the next generation of engineers and innovators will play an important role in further proliferating AM in the manufacturing sphere.
“Currently graduating mechanical engineers have had an FDM machine since they were in high school, they used them in college, so they’re very familiar with the layer-by-layer process and CAD models,” he says. “As they come into the professional market, they’ll start thinking about new parts and they’ll be looking to DfAM rather than DFM (design for manufacturing). This means designing for function, without compromising designs. The sooner that DfAM is embraced by these future engineers and they start to think about not only prototyping but also making production parts, that’s where the paradigm shift is going to allow production.”
At the moment, 3DEO’s primary clients come from the aerospace and medical sectors, as well as from defense and automation. One industry that is conspicuously missing from this list is the automotive industry.
“We haven’t had many automotive clients yet because when you talk to them they tell you your margins,” he explains. “They come in and evaluate cost and tell you what you’re going to make. I think eventually we’ll think about it and we have talked with most of the big automotive OEMs and many automotive suppliers, but today it’s not for us. When our machines are ubiquitous and they’re cranking out parts everyday in multiple facilities, maybe then we can look at automotive. But the big focus now is on aerospace, medical, defense and automation.”
What’s next for 3DEO
Parallel to its production business, 3DEO also operates an R&D center which is continually striving to improve and advance its metal 3D printing technology. Presently, the company is focused on three main areas: improving its printer resolution, increasing throughput, and fully automating the production line.
Kallman explains: “We’re in the middle of a printer upgrade that will get the resolution to +/- .001-2 inch per inch. This resolution is on par with MIM, and by far the best in all of metal AM. We’re also constantly looking at driving layer times down. Because we have reduced them dramatically, we are currently able to do a lot of production here, but improving throughput and continuous improvement a never ending journey.
“The third thing we are working on is automation. The machines are very automated already, but in the next phase of the company the entire line will be fully automated. Driving labor cost out of production is important to keep costs as low as possible for our customers.”
Presently, 3DEO is working on the largest orders in the metal AM industry. For instance, they recently won a purchase order for 18,000 pieces from a customer who said their part properties outperformed CNC machined parts. It seems the California-based startup is on the up and up.