Ever since 3D printers began the paradigmatic shift from stand-alone rapid prototyping machines to networked units within production workflows, it became clear that additive manufacturing—the most digital among manufacturing processes—was also the least automated and the hardest to integrate into full end-to-end production workflows. By comparison, injection molding—the least digital of all manufacturing processes—is much more integrated and remains a better fit for mass production. And although additive manufacturing does not intend to become a full replacement of injection molding, for additive manufacturing to be a realistic manufacturing technology choice it still needs to become more competitive. And one way of becoming more competitive is to automate all post-processing steps after printing. AM-Flow has set out to deliver post-processing automation solutions, to create the first AM production lines in the world.
One of the reasons why it is so hard to integrate AM into large volume production lines is precisely its digital nature. The idea of “digital” manufacturing would seem to imply a perfect fit within automated production but it’s actually quite the opposite. One of the key advantages of digital manufacturing is that every single unit in a batch can have a different geometry. This means that any successive system within the workflow has to be able to recognize an individual part exactly for what it is. This has not been possible until recent advancements in machine vision and AI, enabling high mix AND high volume. Now a solution exists: the path to full AM integration into a large volume production workflow is still a very complicated one, but the rewards are going to be significant. And the alternative is none.
Learning to automate
The team behind AM-Flow gained much of its initial experience in AM production while building and running Shapeways. In 2014, this writer had the opportunity to visit its New York factory and, while it was a fascinating experience to see all those EOS production machines churning out parts, it was also shocking to see the manual labor that went with sorting, cleaning and packaging the printed products for shipping out. Since then, leading AM services have dramatically expanded their machine park. Today full workflow automation is no longer just an option but a prerequisite to be able to scale the business. That’s where AM-Flow came in.
“What proves really difficult in AM compared to other industries is the freedom of geometry,” begins Stefan Rink, Co-founder and CEO of AM-Flow. Mr. Rink’s background is in using IT and Lean Six Sigma to analyze and automate bottlenecks in industrial processes, first in metal construction and then in the solar power industry. “Every part is different. AM service bureaus are particularly challenged as they face an extreme mix of geometrical shaped 3D parts and high volume orders coming in on a daily basis. At Shapeways, for example, it’s impossible to predict what customers are going to order, with on the one hand a huge B2B customer base and on the other hand over a million community members using the platform globally.”
Production-ready systems such as the EOS P 796 or HP’s 5200 series machines can output up to a thousand parts in a single batch. A lot of manual labor is required to sort out that kind of volume. “When I started in additive manufacturing I had the privilege of working with a highly educated team,” points out Rink, “but the more we optimized our 3D printing processes, the duller most of the tasks became: in the end, it comes down to recognizing a part, putting it in a plastic bag and walking parts through the factory. Really simple tasks. It wasn’t becoming an interesting place anymore for engineers and we see this happening around the 3D printing world.
“Add the continuous pressure to lower price per part (still 5 to 10x the price compared to injection molded parts) and then you have only one choice,” Rink adds. “Either move your AM factory into a low-wage country or start automating the workflow and get it interesting again. We luckily did the latter and that should be the approach of the AM industry as a whole. Live up to the promises of freedom of design, local manufacturing, short lead times and minimal logistics. The increasing number of successful applications designed over the last 30 decades have resulted in lots of parts being 3D printed today in numerous factories all over the world. For investments in those factories to pay off, the cost profile per part needs to change. If you do the math at mature factories, manual labor costs greatly outweigh machine depreciation and raw material cost.
How does AM-Flow help achieve this? By providing a full stack of solutions that integrate all—or almost all—segments of the AM production workflow, both at a hardware and software level. It all starts by being able to identify 3D parts based on their geometry with the AM-VISION. Now that you can identify parts, you can sort parts into bin for their next process step, whether it’s being sent directly to the distribution center (DC) for shipping or being sent through to other routing steps like polishing, vapor smoothing, dyeing or assembly, and then finally to bring all parts of a single client order together for packaging.
The AM-Flow network
“The 3D printing industry can learn a lot from the other industries,” Rink explains. “For example, automated picking and placing, tracking and tracing, transportation and packaging. The big difference is in the individualized geometries and the fact that you don’t have a limited, standard product library with common product ID labels. That’s what we started solving: we can now identify parts in a split second based on the geometry alone. In order to do this, the AM-VISION compares each printed part with the original STL file. It looks very similar to an airport scanner, with parts flowing on a conveyor belt.
“That’s where our magic happens,” Rink continues. “We are aiming for fully automated production lines. Every machine, every module we put into the market has an input and an output based on a conveyor belt, making it fully modular. With the AM-PICK robot we can go from batch to one-piece-flow and back again.” This enables clients of AM-Flow like BMW, Midwest Prototyping, Shapeways, Materialise, Marketiger and Oceanz to connect AM-Flow’s proprietary modules in different layouts and integrate external systems such as cleaning and part quality enhancing post-processing hardware, e.g. provided by specialized firms like DyeMansion, AMTechnologies, PostProcess or AM Solutions. At the same time, the AM-Flow modules work with currently available MES (manufacturing execution systems) software such as Materialise’s Streamics, 3YourMind, Authentise, Link3D, AMFG, Siemens NX, Oqton or any of the other third-party MES or ERP software prgrams like SAP, Oracle or Microsoft Dynamics.
On the touch screen operator consoles AM-LOGIC runs. It is used to show the operator a reduced amount of information necessary to complete tasks effectively, based on contextual, visual information provided by the ERP and MES. “We are aiming at a fully automated system, so there should be very little information running through the AM-LOGIC console,” says Carlos Zwikker, Commercial Director at AM-Flow. “Most of the time the process is running automatically.”
“This is Industry 4.0, so you always need connected solutions,” Zwikker, points out. “The logic of how a part moves through a 3D print factory is managed by the MES or ERP, the backbone of every digital factory. We provide the recognition, sorting and routing of the printed parts, where the MES software tells us which printers the parts are coming from and where they need to go next: to post-processing or to be packaged and shipped to the end customer. This way we can provide a full ‘track & trace’ process for AM production lines.”
This is a key element because it enables manufacturers to automatically track every single step of the process. A prerequisite for ensuring high-quality standards and essential if you want to provide as an additive manufacturer to industry segments like aerospace, medical, defense and automotive, that have strict certification requirements.
Overall, the AM-Flow solution stack includes six modules: AM-VISION for part identification, the AM-LOGIC touch screen operator console, the AM-SORT high-speed gentle touch part sorter, the AM-PICK robot arm for part handling, AM-ROUTE mobile robot (AGV/AIV) and AM-BAGGING for automated bagging and labeling. All AM-Flow modules are designed to be capable of dealing with infinite geometries. AM-PICK for instance comes with a special gripper that can pick many of the delicate and constantly changing geometries. “When developing our solutions we have three design rules.” Rink clarifies. “First, at launch, a module is able to process over 90% of the parts in a fully automated way. Second, the throughput time per part is below five seconds and, third, the new machine has a solid, profitable financial business case from day one”.
All AM-Flow modules in the market are showing stable performance levels in the high 90%, are able to meet the low takt time requests expected at automated production plants and lowering the cost per part. And don’t forget about returning the fun factor to the workfloor!
Dealing with the infinity of possible geometries is an uphill battle. In that sense AM-Flow will never be finished. The team is applying the latest state-of-the-art AI and machine learning. Processing thousands of parts on a daily basis helps identify edge cases and solve them continuously. This way AM-Flow is working together with the operators of its customers to provide a seamless production line performance and get closer to the perfect digital factory every day.
Automating AM factories now
The COVID-19 crisis highlighted the need for shorter supply chains and dramatically accelerated the trend towards automation. Both of these play into the vision for more automated additive manufacturing. But the question remains: how fast can it be implemented? “Factories have a huge backlog now,” says Dennis Lieffering, Marketing Manager at AM-Flow. “Social distancing has to be taken into account while operating factories around the clock. In order to do this, everyone is working overtime: within this context, our systems could increase productivity by a factor of 5 to 10X.”
The endgame is to make AM competitive against injection molding, with the added benefits of shorter lead times and increased geometrical freedom. The factors keeping the cost of AM high are no longer machine and materials prices. Machine expenditures have largely been absorbed by service bureaus and industrial adopters in the past decade. Materials prices will come down as demand increases. So, paradoxically, the biggest limit for AM today is the cost of human labor for repetitive tasks. “The pandemic has shown how dependent we have become on very long supply chains,” Lieffering continues, “companies don’t want to rely on that long chain. It’s too fragile. We have to come up with local production. But the 3D printing environment isn’t completely ready yet. Now, the key question is: are companies going to actually make a decision based on these observations?”
One key driver for the automation of AM is the internalization of AM production by large industrial adopters. For these large companies, such as BMW, one of AM-Flow’s first customers, automation is already a fundamental aspect of their production workflows. “Five years ago, 3D printing service providers were doing the largest volumes,” says Zwikker. “Right now OEMs are printing large volumes. Companies in automotive and aviation are not just producing more parts but also a very high mix of parts. That surprised us at first and we found that the reason behind this is the combination of parts production and very intensive functional prototyping. These companies are literally printing tens of thousands of different parts to showcase internally and now they are extending this to direct production. For them automation is a given: they just need to add AM to their automated workflow environments.
Growing with the AM industry
In close collaboration with key software and hardware providers, AM-Flow delivers a complete end-to-end hardware and software solution stack, covering every step of the process. A lot has been achieved in the market over the last three decades with a primary focus on the 3D printing technology itself. Now is the time to broaden the scope and look at the AM Factories. Today, both for polymer and metal printing it’s about the economics. And the key to unlocking competitive price levels per part lies in factory automation. “We support over 60 different materials and finishes, including both metal and plastic parts,” Rink explains. “In particular we have been working with one of our customers, Midwest Prototyping, on materials and part handling. They specialize in being able to offer as many different materials and finishes as possible, providing high quality parts, so this collaboration enabled us to expand our material library significantly.”
Automating the post-processing of additive manufacturing is complex and requires a broad collaboration. AM-Flow’s Eindhoven office is located inside the Brainport Industries Campus (BIC), a 100,000-square-meter international campus development in Eindhoven with technology, education, authorities and facilities united under a single roof. Neighboring companies include Siemens; Additive Center, helping companies with application development; Marketiger, leading provider of full color prints; as well as K3D, a metal printing technology center using the Metalfab1 technology of Additive Industries. This Dutch AM hardware OEM has made full automation one of the primary objectives of its modular printing systems and its vision is highly synergic with AM-Flow’s.
“Fortunately,” Zwikker concludes, “we have great technology partners and very forward-thinking customers, who understand that they need to get into a learning curve on how to incorporate automation. It’s also easier to do this when the industry and the factory teams are growing, rather than later on. To help beat corona and summer staffing challenges, we offer the first five companies who will reach out to us—and mention this article—free use of the set of AM-VISION, AM-SORT and AM-BAGGING for two months, to help them take the first difficult steps on this learning curve.”