Materialise on software-driven additive manufacturing, data and sustainability

There are a number of things you can usually guarantee for a Frankfurt tradeshow in November: Back-to-back press conferences, new technologies to wrap your head around, and the best step count your pedometer has seen all year.

For Belgian additive manufacturing leader Materialise, for the last four years, Formnext has promised the annual debut for its latest Magics software, and this year the tradition was upheld with a string of new upgrades focused on productivity for mass manufacturing and customisation.

Now in its 24th iteration, the platform, which has long been considered a backbone to the additive manufacturing industry, kept the Materialise booth densely populated with visitors throughout the four days – so busy in fact, Materialise Chief Technology Officer Bart Van der Schueren and I decide to meet away from the noise of Halls 11 and 12 to get a rundown of the software’s latest features and the ongoing challenges facing the AM industry today.

Materialise is perhaps one of the best-placed companies on the show floor to facilitate such a discussion. As one of only a handful of companies that has existed close to the three decades of the additive industry’s existence with TCT Hall of Fame-inductee Fried Vancraen at the helm (Materialise will celebrate its 30th anniversary next year) it has the distinctive experience as a major player, collaborator and end-user to fuel its unrelenting development.

“I think that this is indeed giving us a unique perspective,” Bart told TCT. “We have, at the moment, 180 printers running and it’s that kind of, I call it the blueprint of how future AM factories will look, that is giving us a unique preview on the future. That’s where we learn a lot and that learning is something that we’ve then translated to the software tools that we make available for the market to move forward.”

Those tools, of which there are several spanning design optimisation to production management, are relied upon by heavyweights such as SLM Solutions, Siemens, HP and countless others to streamline workflows and get parts from file to print. For the latest version of its flagship Magics data and build preparation product, the first major iteration Bart puts forward builds on the work Materialise has been doing to improve the generation of tricky and time-consuming support structures with the likes of e-Stage supports. A new Support Transfer feature allows users to copy the support generation for a part and transfer it to one of a similar-shape. There’s also the addition of Support Transparency which allows users to easily inspect their part with supports from any angle. For mass customisation, an area in which AM is well positioned to shine, this could be a huge time-saver for manufacturers printing large volumes of personalised parts.

“The trouble with mass customised parts is they all look the same, but they are different,” Bart said. “What we can do now with these transposable support structures is, we go through the process based on a generic design, we can find out the most optimal position of the of the support structures, and then apply that approach to all the new instances that come from that same design automatically. This is a big step forward.”

Magics 24 takes this yet another step further with its new nesting capabilities. Rather than have a service bureau operator, for example, spend hours packing parts into a build platform like a complex 3D jigsaw ready to print overnight, nesting has now been sped up by a factor of 30. The operator can now do this at the end of the shift once all orders have come in and set the parts to print ready for the morning.

“If you look at how a typical service bureau operates, you will collect [parts] throughout the day. Then in the evening you will launch your machine. The following day the machine is ready, you finish the parts, you ship them out, that is the classical approach,” Bart explained. “What you can do now, thanks to fast nesting, is that people in data preparation can wait till the last minute to put all the parts together to nest them to the most optimal density and then launch the machine because it’s taking no time anymore. Before it would take a couple of hours to have the nesting. The speed associated with that is really enabling that mass customisation or mass manufacturing.”

The mass customisation of 3D printed products is an area Materialise has already championed through a number of collaborations, particularly on the consumer-facing front with products such as Yuniku’s custom eyewear or Phits personalised insoles, which coincidently, I was wearing during this very interview (no bias, trade shows are simply unkind to feet). Emphasising the importance of data and reliability, the company is now turning its attention to Digital Rights Management (DRM) for the distributed manufacturing of these kinds of products starting with its RS Print platform in collaboration with Superfeet to control where insoles are manufactured, from scanning all the way to finishing.

Bart emphasised: “DRM, as such, is nice and you can talk a lot about it but DRM only works when you have an end-to-end close down of the system.”

Focusing on serial production, Materialise also presented its next-generation, modular Build Processor vision which aims to create closer integration between the software and 3D printer, and allow machine builders to integrate their proprietary software. Bart offered the example of current partner EOS, which is integrating its EOSPRINT software capabilities into the new Build Processor to provide a consistent data preparation workflow for its powder-based machines.

“We are now launching a new framework, a new approach to these Build Processors that we can have, on the one hand, a better user experience in the workflow but on the other hand, we can have IP of the machine makers embedded in the build processor,” Bart explained. “The user of the Build Processor will have more options, more capabilities which are very specific for individual machines but it will be in a workflow which is much more transparent so that you don’t have to switch from one software to another. This is something which, when we listen around in the market, a lot of people are not too happy that they have to switch to many different programmes. Now, thanks to the new Build Processor platform, it will be possible for the operators to stay within a single platform and have full access to the capabilities of their technologies.”

EOS is just one company on Materialise’s AM Partner list which covers the whole gamut from large metal OEM’s like Renishaw to primarily polymer-focused companies like Essentium. With hardware developments happening all the time, how does a software developer keep up with the rapid pace of change? Partnerships, like the one with HP’s Multi Jet Fusion family are one way, but while you may not be able to see it, Bart says the company, with its “stack of data know-how”, doesn’t stop innovating in the background, talking to customers and understanding where they want to go. Like many other companies I spoke to on the show floor, Bart recognises that there’s no use in just having good software; you need to have good hardware and good materials to go with it and he praised the systematic developments machine OEMs are making, in addition to the materials innovations evidenced on the show floor. “But,” he adds, “At the end of the day, you also have to put it in the workflow and that [workflow] is a software-driven thing.”

Bart elaborated: “The workflow is not just to have a part, put it on the machine and print it. It goes beyond that, it goes into interconnecting into manufacturing systems. When you think about manufacturing, we’re not talking anymore about an isolated 3D printing machine somewhere on the shop floor. You’re talking about an integrated product in a production line and it’s that integration, the connectivity of that small 3D printing ecosystem into the larger manufacturing ecosystem that we are working on. That connectivity, that is where our real innovations are going to … basically to stimulate and to make mass manufacturing, mass customisation possible.”

Mass manufacturing continued to come up, as did the vision for future AM factories which, as Bart alluded to earlier, Materialise is seeing first-hand through its own AM facilities. So what kind of role will software play in those future developments? For one, on the materials side, advancements will require input from software so that machines are able to process new formulations correctly. Another is in the development of new products. Bart offers the example of major industries like medical, aerospace and automotive, where accuracy and reliability are crucial but lengthy new product introduction (NPI) processes can mean certain products take years to come to fruition.

“Making a prototype is not complicated but making sure that you can repeat the quality of the prototype over and over again, that is a big challenge,” Bart added. “In order to do so, you need to understand very much how you have to set your parameters on the machine in order to have that properly set to get repeatability.”

Though little details have been shared so far, to that end, Materialise is working on a software tool that will make the NPI process much faster.

Given the talk of new products and IP, our conversation inevitably turned to data: its significance, protecting it, how manufacturers can make the most of their data. As part of its service bureau business, Materialise is using its software expertise to capture as much information as possible and understand what is actually happening inside machines. The goal is to find correlations and feed that back into machine learning to make those machines more intelligent and improve reliability. But data alone is not enough.

“You also need knowledge, you need to know what to do [with it] because a lot of people think artificial intelligence will give data and the computer will magically find something in it,” Bart commented. “No, you have to put know-how in your AI. Of course, once that know-how is properly programmed, then you can have data, then the computer will be much more faster in giving you feedback. As a human you will never be able to look through hundreds and hundreds of images and data points and so on. The computer is developed for doing such things. But it’s an evolutionary step. It’s not something that that will appear overnight.”

To coincide with its 30th anniversary next year, Materialise will host its bi-annual World Summit which brings together Materialise partners and customers, typically under a given theme. The theme for next year is sustainability, one of five key trends it has identified for 2020, but there are plenty of angles to take on the topic such as reduced material usage compared to conventional manufacturing and the ability to bring manufacturing closer to the point of need. So it should come as no surprise that Materialise, a company which has long perpetuated a message of using additive to create a better and healthier world, is looking at multiple factors of sustainability across the entire lifecycle of a part.

“We are strong believer that additive is a sustainable technology but you have to apply it in a proper way,” Bart concluded. “Yes, there are still some challenges that we face, to name one, there is still quite some waste that is generated through these technologies and I think it is our duty as an industry to look into how can we reduce those wastes.

“There are so many aspects which are inherent to additive manufacturing that have a positive impact on the total life cycle of a product that we have to push this into the market. It’s for the planet that we need to do this.”

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