Interview: EOS on Fine Detail Resolution 3D printing

Sometimes, if you want to see the most interesting stuff at a trade show, you’ve got to look past the curtain drops and flagship machines and dig a little deeper. This was the case with Xerox at last year’s Formnext where, though the company rightfully focused the spotlight on its newly acquired metal 3D printing technology, arguably one of the more interesting developments was a nozzle concept presented with a little less fanfare. It was also true of EOS, an additive manufacturing industry leader with comfortably one of the biggest presences on the show floor (a number of neighbouring booths were that of partners like DyeMansion and trinckle), which amidst impressive developments around smart factory floors, debuted a new technology with benefits that are very much in the details.

“Even though from a technical perspective it might first seem like a small step, I think the outcome is very impressive and we’re very proud of this,” Moritz Kügler, Product Line Manager at EOS tells TCT.

The technology is called Fine Detail Resolution (FDR), the first selective laser sintering (SLS) process to use a CO laser and, as the name gives away, promises super fine detail.

It is a name it lives up to. Sample parts are so fine you may even mistake them for a product of stereolithography. I got the chance to handle a selection of chainmail style pieces, the kind you might spot on a 3D printed garment, and despite their fragile appearance, found these tiny interlocking mechanisms to be both incredibly detailed and strong.

Typically, the SLS process uses a high-power carbon dioxide laser to fuse powder particles into an object based on a computer aided design. The move to a CO laser is something EOS has been researching for a number of years. Unlike existing EOS platforms, FDR uses a 50-watt CO laser to create an ultra-fine laser beam with a focus diameter half that of current SLS technologies. This is said to enable new exposure parameters and makes it possible to produce delicate yet robust parts with a high detail resolution and minimum wall thickness of 0.22mm.

“We’ve looked for several years at different ways of bringing the energy to the powder bed and one of the outcomes was the revolutionary new LaserProFusion technology that we announced the year before,” Kügler explains. “Another outcome was the FDR technology, with which we are basically expanding and broadening the use of laser scanner technology, based on what we have. To realise other applications we’re using a CO laser instead of a CO2 laser which operates with a different wavelength and gives you certain degrees of freedom in terms of focus diameter, for example.”

The comparison with SLA hasn’t gone unnoticed by onlookers or EOS. Kügler shared how existing customers were surprised by the fine detail achievable with a powder-based process which traditionally leaves a tell-tale textured surface, proposing FDR delivers the “kind of detail resolution that you usually are only able to achieve with SLA.” He expounded on this, suggesting that, based on feedback, customers may be attracted to the FDR process due to a stronger trust in powders and a melting process compared to other materials.

Kügler says: “This might actually be a new focus point for us in the future as well, to have a look at what parts are made in this industry. A lot of companies seem to trust more in powders and SLS than they do in SLA in terms of long term performance, at least that’s the feedback we’ve got from some of the interest. These are potential applications that we haven’t targeted yet.”

Further examining the benefits of this development, Kügler says CO laser technology is still fairly new in comparison to CO2, and as the first company to implement such laser power for additive manufacturing, believes it will open up applications in completely new areas previously unserved by AM. In keeping with EOS’s overall focus on AM for production, early application areas have been identified in the manufacture of electronic components such as plugs and connectors with production runs in their thousands, and in the consumer goods market for customised products like eyewear.

“What surprised me most is not the kind of businesses or the kind of industries that are interested, but the depth. We already had [now] contact with the major players in the electrics and electronics market, and of course in the consumer electronics like smartphones,” Kügler says. “Now, we also have the second tier and third tier of the supply chain that is hugely interested, because they see such a big benefit, even though they have to also convince their customers of the quality of SLS parts. Especially on parts that are not on display, for example connectors. We had the experience in the past that these kind of industries with these kind of parts, that don’t have a benefit in terms of publicity from using additive manufacturing, are a little slower in adoption. But here we see quite the opposite: these large tier two and three suppliers that usually operate under the radar come up with very knowledgeable requests on what properties and functionalities they would like to manufacture with AM. It’s a real pleasure to discuss with these customers the best way to utilise the benefits of the FDR technology.”

The process is currently approved for use with one material, PA 1101. Made from renewable raw materials, with both a high impact resistance and elongation at break, the material provides a translucent finish when processed at a layer thickness between 40-60 microns. Given the interest from the electronics industry, flame retardant materials are to be explored next, while demand from the consumer goods sector is pushing EOS to look at more bio-based and sustainable material options. 

The technology is still being tested internally but Kügler said FDR received a positive response at Formnext and has already sparked interest from potential customers following some early market conversations. 

“We were already confident that electrics and electronics will be very interesting markets due to the fine details they need to print on some connectors. But of course, it is overwhelmingly positive to have so many new customers coming to us that, partly, we had not been in contact with but are also hidden champions like us,” Kügler comments. “It’s very interesting to connect with these large companies that manufacture all kinds of connectors we’ve never seen before. It’s great to see that we sparked their interest into SLS or even additive manufacturing with FDR.”

Those potential customers may not have to wait too long as EOS plans to ramp up commercialisation steps with an initial pilot phase in the summer and is planning to deliver first systems by early next year. FDR is being developed for EOS’s polymer platforms and will sit alongside the EOS P 500 system and the aforementioned LaserProFusion concept. The idea is to give customers the ability to choose which system best suits their application needs whether it’s the standard EOS P 500 with current CO2 laser for high productivity and material choices, the LaserProFusion for even higher productivity levels or as a replacement to injection moulding, or this new the CO-based FDR technology for manufacturing fine components and expanding application possibilities.

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