December 10, 2023
The Roundtable Talk DE 24/7 hosted on September 21, 2023 (“Additive Manufacturing: Scaling Up for Mass Production”) and sponsored by BMF, 3DEO and Xometry is a reminder that if the application changes, so do the rules. Now that additive manufacturing (AM) or 3D printing is evolving into a manufacturing technology, it’s time to re-examine some of the legacy practices, inherited from its early days when it was used mainly for prototyping.
As an on-demand manufacturing platform, Xometry allows users to upload a commonly used 3D file and request instant feedback on the design’s suitability for AM, lead time and cost. The platform is not restricted to 3D printing—it also provides CNC machining, sheet cutting and injection molding services, provided by members of the Xometry network.
“AI is at the heart of our platform,” says Greg Paulsen, director of Applications Engineering and Marketing, Xometry. “We use it not only to help predict and give accurate pricing, but to identify the right suppliers. We are your matchmaker, just like Uber, but in this case, not looking for the closest driver for you, but a supplier best suited for your project.”
“The idea for our company came about when we noticed that almost all our customers were thinking about miniaturization; they were thinking about making parts in their assembly smaller,” says John Kawola, CEO of Boston Micro Fabrication (BMF). “So we focus on high precision, small features—beyond what’s possible with other AM equipment today.”
“We think of the 3D printer as only a piece of the puzzle,” says Matt Petros, co-founder and CEO of 3DEO. “Everything from raw materials to printing, to process development to software, and part handling and sintering to quality control—we consider all these part of our technological scope.”
Kawola agrees. “In manufacturing use, the 3D printer is just one part of it,” he adds. “You’ve got the whole front end, the data flow. And I’m not just talking about the CAD file. Is it connected to your MES [manufacturing execution system]? Is it connected to how you process orders? In print preparation, are there rules around who can and cannot change the machine settings?”
The Evolution of AM
For designs with complex geometry, AM has proven to be a cost-effective option, but when the desired volume increases, the equation may no longer favor AM, Paulsen cautions. “AM has one of the lowest barriers to entry. What you need to start is simply a 3D design file,” he says, but also points out, “When you’re working with AM, and you suddenly hit the big times—That’s when you may go the opposite direction. You ask, ‘Can the design be stamped?’ Or, ‘Can it be redesigned for traditional manufacturing?’”
Kawola identifies the reasons AM has become robust enough to produce end-use parts: “Machines have gotten less expensive, easier to use and more precise. They can now print in polymers as well as metal.” He points out, “Today, you can say, yes, this part made with a 3D printer is technically the equivalent of a similar part made with molding or machining or stamping.”
Petros believes widespread AM education is also changing the way people design parts. “We live in the Los Angeles County region. Every high school that I know of has a 3D printer. All the kids using a printer use some kind of 3D design software. Every college that I know of in this country has multiple 3D printers. The students are growing up realizing that they can design things with less constraints,” he says.
In mass production, output consistency is an important consideration. Whereas a 3D-printed prototype is a singular part, hundreds or thousands of 3D-printed end-use parts need to look, feel and perform the same way, no matter where it’s made. Paulsen believes AM has an advantage over traditional manufacturing in this respect.
“In machining, a lot of times the talent is in the machinist. In a typical sub-20-person machine shop, the best machinist is often the owner. They have their own signature methods, and they could do great work. But in additive, I’d say the talent [is] in the machine. It’s not 100%, but a lot of the talent is embedded in the machine,” Paulsen says.
With Xometry, the algorithm for pairing jobs and service providers also takes into account previous job fulfillment history as one factor to ensure the same output quality.
Certain post-processing steps should not be underestimated, Kawola points out. “For example, in our business, inspection comes at a premium cost. Because you can’t see the features inside the parts, and you need a $50K to $100K device to inspect it. Besides, there’s packaging and certification.”
Challenging Parametric Design Rules
3DEO also offers design for additive manufacturing (DfAM) services in addition to printing. Petros says his conversations often begin with inspecting the CAD file submitted by a client, and discussing how to rebuild it for AM. Often, a CAD file prepared by someone with parametric thinking might not be ideal for AM.
“There are things we take for granted in traditional manufacturing,” adds Petros. “But in 3D printing, it’s just not typically how you should design. For example, you can 3D print curved holes or curved internal features, especially for fluid flow. So you have to ask: ‘Does a hole have to be round? Can it be oval, square or some other random shape?’”
Parametric thinking is programmed into how many engineers design parts, because they have to design to produce the parts in machining, Petros says. When switching to AM, “You have to challenge some of those basic assumptions. You have to look at tons of different 3D printed shapes and cool parts” as a way to develop DfAM instincts, he adds.
The recorded episode is archived and available at digitalengineering247.com/topic/category/webcasts.