After reviewing the latest developments in 3D software solutions and the future of 3D printing technologies for manufacturing, let’s examine the last step of the end-to-end digital manufacturing workflow: post-processing. From the eyes of any industrial company, when producing a large number of products using traditional methods, automation is a critical factor. When it comes to implementing 3D printing in these processes, it’s not enough to have the best software to design your products, or the fastest 3D printing technology that will enable you to print large part quantities. In order to have a fully automated end-to-end workflow from design to end-use parts, there is a need to integrate automated post-processing solutions.
What makes automated post-processing solutions essential over time? And who exactly needs them? What are the values they offer compared to manual post-processing methods?
The 3D printing evolution
If we look at the past decade, several events occurred which make automated post-processing relevant today. From the appearance of low-cost FDM printers in 2010 by MakerBot, the wave of new 3D printing startups in 2013-2014, the entry of large players such as GE Additive and HP a few years later, and the rise of highly innovative 3D startups bringing 3D printing solutions specifically for manufacturing applications. All of these events, combined with an increasing number of printers sold around the world, generated a critical mass of 3D printed parts, which keeps growing over time. If we look into large manufacturers that are already implementing their long-term plans to digitize their manufacturing processes with 3D printing, and large service providers that are printing thousands of parts every month, we start to see bottlenecks in post-processing high volumes of printed parts.
From manual to automation
Post-processing a 3D printed part includes three main steps: support removal, surface finish and dyeing. In the case of printing prototypes, manual post processing is usually sufficient, regardless of the printing technology being used. But when it comes to manufacturing applications that require high volumes, automated solutions offer real value and help to streamline the whole process.
In the past few years, we have seen several companies develop post-processing solutions that offer automated and easy-to-use systems. Here are some examples of automated solutions for the various post-processing steps by two companies: PostProcess Technologies and DyeMansion.
Automated support removal
Automated support removal consists of a dedicated unit that combines hardware, AI software and chemicals for submersion and spray techniques. The support is removed automatically in a clean environment, with minimal noise and without any manual intervention. These units are suitable for parts made with different types of 3D printing technologies, including FDM, Material Jetting, SLA, SLS and also different metal printing technologies. The benefits they provide are (1) shortening total post processing time (2) reducing manual labor (3) reducing cost of error such as breaking parts (4) fine tuning the process for optimal results and (5) high repeatability in the process.
Automated surface finishing
Based on the same concept as automated support removal solutions, these standalone units includes techniques such as suspended rotational force. In a fine-tune method that takes into consideration the technology the part was printed with, and without any manual intervention, the parts go through a smoothing process. Instead of a manual process, which can be expensive, inconsistent and not scalable, these types of solutions offer the following advantages (1) high quality and repeatability (2) minimum manual labor and (3) high throughput.
When the application is relevant, color can visually take 3D printed parts closer to final product, or transform any part into its final version. These types of solutions are based on a chemical process that enables dyeing parts with variety of colors. They also cover parts that are made with different types of printing methods. Having an automated dyeing solution offers the following advantages (1) automated and consist workflow (2) reducing manual labor and (3) avoid replacing existing 3D printers with printers that have color capabilities.
The vision of the end-to-end workflow
Companies that aim to digitize their manufacturing processes are always looking for new ways to streamline the whole process, from designing their products to having end-use parts. In most cases, it starts with an organization that operates a high number of 3D printers in one location. Once volume goes up, efficiency is required to streamline the different steps. When suitable 3D software programs are implemented, and the right 3D printing technologies are adopted, keeping the post-processing phase manual will create a bottleneck that will keep growing over time.
Having said that, the justification of using automated post-processing solutions depends on three key elements: (1) number of parts printed (2) labor costs (in some countries these are much higher than others) and (3) the vision of the company in regards to digitizing manufacturing for the next 3-5 years. Once the timing is right, integrating these types of solutions in the end-to-end workflow will help large companies to further accelerate the adoption of additive manufacturing in their organizations.