This interview was originally published in the 3dpbm AM Focus eBook on Automation.
Quoting a popular fictional character, post-processing can be described as “The cause of—and solution to—all of 3D printing’s production challenges”.
It is the cause of said challenges because 3D printed parts require intensive post-processing steps, more so than any other manufacturing technology. It is the solution because the only way to achieve fully digital manufacturing workflows is by solving the additive post-processing challenge.
Only a few companies in the world of AM have made this their priority and no company has achieved as much success as DyeMansion has.
In just five years DyeMansion went from seed funding—supported by AM Ventures—to establishing a strong presence in Europe, with increasingly consolidated distribution in both the US and China, to a €5 million Series A funding round led by financial investors Unternehmertum Venture Capital Partners (UVC Partners) and btov Partners.
“As of July 2020, we have 18 sales partners around the world to cover market demands locally,” Co-founder and CEO Felix Ewald tells us. “We strongly believe that you have to do local business with local people. We have known from the very beginning that we need to become a company that acts globally. Even the first four machines that we ever shipped were installed in four different countries. Internationalization has never been a question mark for us and today we have over 700 customers using our hardware or On-Demand Finishing offer from 34 different countries. Since our Series A funding in 2018, we doubled our team and are now 66 FTE in our two locations in Munich, Germany, and Austin, Texas. That makes us proud!”
DyeMansion’s expertise has grown so much that it was selected to be part of the €10.7 million POLYLINE project, together with 15 industrial and research partners alongside EOS and BMW. This collaboration is one of the drivers to accelerate automation and integration into MES systems and its goal is a fully connected production line at BMW’s new Additive Manufacturing Campus. “This is proof that we are already on the right track,” says Co-founder and CTO Philipp Kramer. “DyeMansion takes care of the post-processing to complement the line beside areas like software and printing.”
The road ahead is still a very long one and the company’s co-founders have a very clear idea of where they—and by extension, the entire polymer additive manufacturing industry—is heading. In this exclusive interview, we speak about their strategy to continue on their (and AM’s) exponential growth path and the technology that will make it happen.
3pdbm: What is your long-term vision for fully automated post-processing?
Felix Ewald: I don’t have a vision just for post-processing. My vision is much bigger: that true, digital manufacturing becomes a reality and 3D printed products become part of our everyday lives. In my opinion, this is key to a sustainable economy. Of course, post-processing is an important element of that and we will do our best to accelerate the transformation of the manufacturing industry. We will focus on unlocking all imaginable end-use applications of 3D printing by delivering best-in-class technologies that fulfil all industry 4.0 requirements and fit perfectly in the factories of the future.
3pdbm: Let’s take a step back, why did you start with dyeing?
FE: Our first business idea regarding 3D printing was selling customized smartphone cases. The biggest challenge that we faced was that the color did not last. That’s why we started developing our own dyeing solution. Once we recognized that this was not only our issue but also a big challenge for the whole industry, we switched our focus from smartphone cases to professional post-processing equipment. It was clear from the start that coloring always comes up with some kind of surface treatment. But of course, we could not have imagined that the demand for post-processing solutions goes for almost all applications and industrial printing technologies out there.
3pdbm: Fast forward to now, can you talk a little more about the latest addition to your Print-to-Product workflow, the Powerfuse S?
Philipp Kramer: The Powerfuse S uses the VaporFuse Surfacing (VFS) technology and complements our existing portfolio of surfacing techniques. Our customers already made many applications become reality with our PolyShot Surfacing (PSS), introduced in 2016, which delivers a high-end semi-gloss finish through mechanical blasting. Still, there was an untapped potential of applications in need of truly sealed and washable surfaces, especially when using flexible materials like TPU. For both, chemical surfacing with a solvent vapor is the only suitable solution. This is exactly what the Powerfuse S does.
3pdbm: Can you explain how the technology behind it works?
PK: Basically, solvent vapor condenses on the surface of the parts. This dissolves the top layer of the surface causing the polymer chains to rearrange in the strive for low surface energy. The surface roughness is heavily reduced and after removing the solvent from the part, there is a smooth and completely sealed surface. For a long time, chemical smoothing has been associated with harsh chemicals, toxic waste and single-use solvents. This not only can cause serious harm to the operator, sometimes even using CMR-solvents (carcinogenic, mutagenic and reprotoxic), but also has a bad environmental footprint. Additive manufacturing has huge potential for a more sustainable supply chain and all post-processing steps need to support this vision. For us, it was a prerequisite solving all those challenges, before offering a system to the market. The Powerfuse S runs with a solvent that is approved by the EU for food packaging and is used in many cosmetic products. It operates in a fully closed loop with integrated recycling of the solvent and no waste. We managed to develop a truly green solution here.
3pdbm: How does it integrate within Industry 4.0 workflow automation?
PK: Industry 4.0 is quite a broad term that is often just used as a buzzword. With the help and knowledge of our industrial customers and partners, we identified key features that will be needed for the equipment of the digital factory of the future and implemented them into the Powerfuse S.
In concrete terms this means full process monitoring using sensors, connectivity features with the modern OPC-UA protocol for machine-to-machine communication and integration with MES/ERP systems, as well as remote maintenance via a VPN for fast solution finding in case of a failure to ensure a high OEE (Overall Equipment Effectiveness). On the automation side, a conveyor belt proved to be the most efficient and flexible solution to enable autonomous runs in the absence of an operator. In addition, the conveyor belt gives the flexibility to either move treated parts to the next processing step via a conveyor extension or load and unload the system using AGVs (Automated Guided Vehicles).
3pdbm: What are some of the biggest challenges of post-process automation?
FE: Managing the complexity of serving different materials and printing technologies. Every printing technology and even almost every material behaves differently in terms of coloring and surface treatment. We are aiming to help our customers with all their challenges.
But if you just consider 10 materials from 10 different suppliers, you already need 100 adapted processes which makes it quite complicated and also hard to prioritize. The good thing is that we learn with every new material and new customers can benefit from this know-how and our database.
3pdbm: Can you explain which software is necessary to run and integrate your systems?
PK: In general, the Powerfuse S is a stand-alone system that does not require any centralized software to run. On the integration and industrial automation, we decided to use the newest Siemens components that support the modern OPC-UA communication protocol. This currently emerges as the industrial standard for machine-to-machine communication. The leading MES software providers are working on an integration via the OPC-UA protocol or are already supporting it as of today. With the rise of the importance of post-processing, we have been contacted by the most relevant players in this field and are currently speaking about an out-of-the-box integration of the Powerfuse S and other DyeMansion systems within their software. The need is definitely there and it offers a high customer benefit.
3pdbm: Will more DyeMansion systems adopt a conveyor belt for workflow integration in the future?
PK: With the great feedback that we received from the concept of the Powerfuse S with its conveyor belt and the connectivity for communication, it is a logical step for us to develop such solutions for the complete DyeMansion workflow. The automation of the individual systems is not the biggest challenge. The interfaces between different systems, both in data flow and part flow, is the greater challenge. Most likely this will require the most work and creativity as well as expertise.
3pdbm: Could robots also be used to move the parts from one station to the other or will conveyor belts be the standard means of connecting all stations?
PK: I do not think there is a perfect solution that fits all needs when it comes to automation. Customer production environments and requirements are highly individual and you cannot compare one with the other in most cases. Producing slightly individualized parts with similar geometries at high volume, as is the case with eyewear, for example, requires a different concept than having build jobs with thousands of different parts in different sizes, from different customers. Key is to have flexible systems that can be integrated into any manufacturing environment. Then it doesn’t matter if the customer wants to use robotic arms, conveyor belts or AGVs. The post-processing equipment must be able to serve all those cases.
3pdbm: How large of a demand for post-processing hardware do you expect over the next 5 to 10 years?
FE: The demand for post-processing depends heavily on the adoption rate of 3D printing by the manufacturing industry. If you don’t have an industrial 3D printer, you don’t need our solutions. So everything is connected. The CAGR of AM is expected to be around 25% for many, many years to come. Another accelerator is the switch from prototyping to real manufacturing.
The demand for automated and high-quality finishing solutions increases having larger manufacturing applications at scale. So, on the one hand, we depend on the general development of 3D printing. On the other hand, we accelerate development because our solutions unlock the full potential of 3D printing by enabling the production of high-quality finished parts.
3pdbm: Is the current workflow based on 3 types of hardware (cleaning, smoothing, dyeing) complete or could more systems and stations be integrated in the future?
PK: The current workflow will be extended by further solutions in the future. There are some challenges that have not been solved yet. For example unpacking of the build cake, part handling/sorting and quality control. We at DyeMansion will cover the entire process chain after the successful build of the parts when they leave the 3D printer. Those extensions will be fully integrated into the existing workflow, which makes our equipment a safe investment for the future. Whether we develop our own solutions or work with partners will be decided on a case-by-case basis. Forming strong alliances with specialized category leaders will be the key to meet all post-processing requirements.
3pdbm: Will DyeMansion consider introducing other types of hardware for AM workflow automation, such as metrology, NDT, even pre-process hardware for material supply?
PK: Keeping the focus as a start-up on the key areas of expertise is quite important. In the field of metrology and NDT there are several companies that are specialized in those technologies. Most likely such solutions will be integrated into the post-processing chain. Pre-processes like material supply and storage have a high influence on the print itself and the quality of the parts. Printer manufacturers have the most expertise here and it should be handled by them. Most suppliers already have equipment in their portfolio. So, there is no value for the customer if we create our own solutions.
3pdbm: Will you ever get into metal post-processing?
FE: Never say never, but so far we have no concrete plans to go into this direction. Our goal is to be the best in what we do. Metal post-processing is a completely different field that requires completely different solutions. We have so many products and topics in our pipeline that will keep us busy for the coming years and define our roadmap.