Whether you refer to it as the fully automated factory, the lights out factory, or digital serial manufacturing – the point is, it has arrived. Traditional manufacturing, with one machine dedicated to each individual task, is out the window. Today’s metal AM machines are capable of fully automating the process from start to finish, from initial powder handling, to 3D printing and even post-processing.
As Additive Industries MetalFAB1 has proven, replacing labor-intensive and sequential processes allows 10 times greater productivity, and may finally fulfill the promise of AM serial production.
At formnext 2015, Netherlands-based Additive Industries showcased the first integrated metal additive manufacturing machine, its MetalFAB1, and announced the start of its Beta program. The first company to sign up? None other than Airbus APWorks. Three other beta customers quickly came onboard: IRPD, automotive parts supplier GKN, and Kaak Group, an industrial producer of bakery products.
At this year’s highly successful formnext powered by TCT, Additive Industries co-founder and CEO Daan Kersten explained the benefits of a fully automated factory, and how the company is preparing to deliver its first series production machine this December.
Fully Integrated and Automated AM Production
To review, Additive Industries MetalFAB1 is a fully integrated and automated SLM system with an expandable modular architecture, robot-controlled build plate handling, and integrated heating treatment.
The system is capable of using multiple materials in a single machine without having to clean the powder system – saving time and reducing the risk of material cross-contamination. Together, these elements, along with process-monitoring software, reduce manual labor, increase productivity by ten times, and help ensure product quality for highly regulated industries (think aerospace and medical.) In short, it’s a factory within a machine.
Our first question for Kersten was how Additive Industries, as a company, helps its new customers integrate additive manufacturing into their production workflow:
“Basically the system is already designed for series production in regulated markets because of its complete integration and automation,” he explained. “We have developed not only the hardware but also the software platform that supports the complete workflow and allows you to, on one hand, develop the process in complete openness, so you have all the parameters you can tune, and then be able to freeze those settings and control the quality for serial 3D prints.”
“It’s not only controlling the printing, but also post-processing,” Kersten continued. “We have an integrated furnace for heat-treatments that is also fully-automated.” With the Additive World Software, all file formats, machine settings, and sensor data are also stored in a single location, meaning you can retrieve and verify them at any moment. “It is that simple.”
As far as potential drawbacks to this all-in-one system, Kersten said the only ‘bottleneck’ occurs in the build chamber, during the actual 3D printing process. Therefore the machine can have multiple build chambers to increase productivity. In parallel, they are continuously working on speeding up the metal 3D printing process – though of course, who isn’t?
Beyond Aerospace, Enormous Market Potential
As for the Beta programme, the results have been positive and educational. Kersten asserts that Additive Industries maintains intensive contact with each user to get feedback and know exactly how the AM systems are used and how they can improve. With Kaak Group in particular, the Beta programme helped them see the enormous potential of fully automated factories across industries:
“We always though that we should focus on aerospace and automotive…those parts are very expensive and require a very stable process, so most of our machines are currently in that domain. But if you look at Kaak Group, they 3D print machine parts for their bakery lines, and if you look at the parts, they are not complex, but they already have a positive business case because it’s cost effective. For us that proves that the technology can now move into more general machine building, and that will open up an enormous market.” You can hear Kaak Group explain their process in the video below.
The first production series machine will be delivered to a German carmaker next month. Additive Industries is also looking to move a machine into the U.S. market by early 2017.
Though so far, metal powder bed fusion has been the most successful technology for the automated digital factory concept, and Kersten believes it will remain the AM technology of choice in the coming decade. However, he added, “we are not married to the power bed fusion process. We are machine builders, it will always be modular.”
What’s more important for the future of AM series production is not a specific technology, but a shift in design thinking. “It’s very simple,” said Kersten. The engineers need to think additively. That’s where it all starts.”