Today, Belgian 3D printing company Materialise has released a new simulation module for its Magics 3D Print Suite which promises to optimize metal 3D printing in a production floor environment. The new software update is the latest release by Materialise and brings it and its users one step closer to metal 3D printing at an industrial scale, competing against traditional manufacturing processes.
The exciting update is not unprecedented, as Materialise—a longstanding company in the AM industry—has been at the fore of 3D printing trends and developments for years. We got the chance to speak to Stefaan Motte, President and General Manager of Materialise’s software division about the company’s trajectory in the evolution of additive manufacturing and what the simulation for AM software module means in the bigger picture.
“When we at Materialise look at the state of the industry at this moment, we look from an interesting perspective because we’ve been around for about three decades and we see how our offering to the market and the capabilities of 3D printing have and continue to evolve,” he says. “We have identified see three distinct eras in the evolution of 3D printing.”
First era of 3D printing: making things work
Founded in 1990, Materialise had its beginnings when founder Wilfried Vancraen saw an early stereolithography machine in Germany and purchased one. As the technology was still in its early days, Vancraen was faced with numerous challenges with the 3D printer. A course for action, he realized, depended not only on the 3D printer hardware but also on the software.
“That’s how Magics was founded,” elaborates Motte. “That’s why we started writing software: to print what we needed to be able to print as a service bureau. Over the years that software grew and grew, but it all had to do with making things printable, making things work. That was the first age of 3D printing from our point of view: coming up with the right tools, with the right processes in order to deliver and to print the things that our customers were asking for.”
Second era of 3D printing: finding meaningful applications
“When he founded the company, Wilfried wanted Materialise to make a positive impact on the world,” Motte continues. “Part of our mission statement is about creating a better and healthier world, which partly has to do with finding meaningful applications for 3D printing. Being a prototyping technology is one thing, but having an impact on the world, on different industries is something else.
“Very early on, Materialise started looking for meaningful applications for 3D printing. Looking at how and where can the technology be used so that it can make things that were not possible before, open new opportunities, overcome challenges. That’s really what finding meaningful applications is about. It’s about working together and seeing where added value can be created.”
“One of the fun parts of working at Materialise is that over the years we have been able to realize a lot of those meaningful applications,” says Motte. “Early in the 2000s, we saw how 3D printing transformed the hearing aid industry, for instance. And later it also impacted the medical and dental sectors as well as industrial applications and even the customized eyewear business. Leveraging strengths of all of the players in the ecosystem was crucial and that’s what we have been doing and that brought 3D printing to the stage where we’re at now where 3D printing is moving beyond prototyping.
“The fact that it’s adopted within aerospace now to produce parts for engines; that it’s adopted in the medical industry by medical device companies—not just to make one offs or to make patient specific devices but also to make standard implants—that all is a result of the great work that we have been doing and we’re happy that a lot of companies have followed our lead in finding meaningful applications.”
Third (and current) era of 3D printing: making it sustainable
Coming to the present, Motte acknowledges that additive manufacturing is now on the verge of massive adoption in the manufacturing industry. “We’re moving beyond research projects,” he says. “We’re now at the stage that either external contract manufacturers or internal production setups are being installed within the make industry to create these larger volume applications using 3D printing.
“When you talk to production managers, what’s on their minds at this moment is scalability, making their production setup to scale with the demand of the market and meeting the quality requirements of that market. But the third thing that comes with that is really the productivity of the entire setup. Because AM is not a novelty technology anymore, the price competitive nature of the manufacturing industry comes into play, and that’s something that we have seen in the industry over the past years, especially on the metals side but also on the plastics side.”
“The procurement departments of the manufacturing industry are really putting that pressure on the 3D printing industry to be able to meet that reality or to comply with that reality because that’s just part of the industry altogether,” he adds. “For us, that’s really the third age of 3D printing: we made it work, we made it meaningful and now it’s about making it worthwhile for all those using it. It’s about making it sustainable in terms of profitability and productivity. It’s about making it stick.”
Motte elaborates: “If you look at product releases that we’ve done over recent years, they have to do with reducing preparation time, reducing material consumption, maximizing machine time and reducing failure rates. All these elements make scalability much easier to achieve.
“3D printing can be used to make things that are not possible conventionally, such as patient-specific implants and medical devices. But if 3D printing is also to be used for making standard implants or standard components, it will only happen when it can be done in an economically viable way and there are cost drivers that bring those production companies to use it instead of something else.”
Increasing productivity with simulation tech
The simulation module just released as part of Materialise’s Magics 3D Print Suite is aimed squarely at making additive manufacturing more sustainable and ultimately a more viable solution for production floors and industrial manufacturing. Critically, the software tools are meant to reduce the need for trial and error and cut back on failure rates.
“We have been living in a world with a lot of trial and error,” Motte explains. “And production facilities know that the scrap rates with 3D printing of between 10 and 15% are not abnormal. Double digit failure rates is something unheard of in other production technologies, yet with 3D printing we’re still there.
“Anything that can reduce that number would be a huge breakthrough. Because when you do the math, the bulk (about 50%) of the costs associated with printing a part are from the cost of the machine itself. If you can maximize the usage of that machine, you immediately impact the productivity and the profitability of your operation, which is what all production centers want.”
Simulation, Motte explains, comes in because it is a useful way to cut back on trial and error. That is, if certain printing outcomes can be predicted virtually—before anything is actually sent to the 3D printer—failure rates can be dramatically reduced.
“Trying out the effects of orientating a part in certain way, putting specific supports on a part and taking into account what would happen during a build—these can be simulated up front so that you can seriously reduce the risk of something going wrong during the build,” Motte says.
“Will simulation completely take the failure risk away? No. But the tests that we have been doing over the past months have validated the initial numbers that we got from universities and external parties which say it can reduce failure rates by up to 50%.”
“Our customers and our production engineers typically get a lot of different orders from a lot of different customers,” he continues. “They are not PhDs with years of experience with simulation technology and are not necessarily well accustomed to all of the bells and whistles of a simulation workbench; they’re production engineers that want to run a very complex simulation but get simple and straightforward results that they can work with. That really is the key in adopting or adapting simulation to the 3D printing reality.”
When prompted to emphasize what sets Materialise’s software module apart from other 3D printing simulation programs, Motte explains that the company worked in collaboration with Simufact, a leader in simulation workbench technologies, to ensure high quality.
“We took the power of Simufact’s workbench and integrated that into Magics. We also added our decades of process know-how to that,” he says. “Not just process know-how as a foundation to do this simulation, but also to know where simulation actually needs to come into play. With the software, users are getting the feedback that they need within the normal workflow of Magics and in a timely manner.”
“Moving forward, you will see more of those things in the Materialise solution,” Motte explains. “The step now of making it stick, it is working. We see 3D printing being adopted not just in prototyping, one-offs or mass customization but also in mass manufacturing of standard parts. So over the coming years, more and more standardized, dedicated production lines will be set up and geared at producing one specific part or one type of object.
“There, two elements will come into play: optimizing that production line to increase productivity. (Simulation will play a key role in not spending six months in trial and error and enabling users to do that up front.) And the next element is artificial intelligence and machine learning, which can be integrated to make sense of the incoming data and use it to further optimize the production setup.”
“When looking at our product portfolio now, but also the innovation angles that we have in our product portfolio moving forward, it has to do with productivity in order to realize the challenge of the third age of 3d printing,” he concludes. “Not making it work—that’s covered—not looking for meaningful applications—we’ve got them—but making it worthwhile for the users of 3D printing so that it will stick around for decades to come and it can take a prominent place in the manufacturing industry.”