Auto focus: Why 3D printing post-processing needs to be automated

“The cost of post-processing can account for up to 30% of the 3D printed part. If you’ve got this not so little secret at the back end, then you’ve got a big problem.”

“Here you are with one of the most exciting technologies in the world but when you scale, you need to put bodies at the end of the line to be able to finish the parts.”

AMT CEO Joseph Crabtree and PostProcess Technologies Managing Director Bruno Bourguet speak to TCT four weeks apart. Between them, they sum up the frustration that many a manufacturer has had with additive manufacturing (AM) technology.

The perception of AM is that of a digital technology, where a part is designed in a CAD programme, a file uploaded to a printer and the part subsequently built-up layer by layer. What comes after – depowdering, support removal, surface treatment, surface sealing, part identification, transportation, sorting, packaging – is typically anything but digital.

“These processes take a significant amount of time, labour and can be harmful to operators’ health,” summarises Benjamin Hlebec, Addiblast, AM Post-Processing Specialist at FerroEcoBlast. “For these reasons, the automatisation of post-processing is a key factor for higher efficiency, cost reduction and [improving] the health and safety of operators.”

FerroEcoBlast is a supplier of AM post-processing technology, offering solutions like the MARS 03 depowdering station, which is fully automated with an entirely closed loop atmosphere that protects powder from contamination, protects operators from harmful chemicals, and lowers costs while doing so. The company is not alone in seeing the value of such automated products.

Bourguet stepped into the AM space in 2018, bringing to PostProcess Technologies his experience from the mapping data sector to help combat the ‘dirty little secret’ tag. He was recruited to help bring to an international market an automated post-processing portfolio, which includes hardware for resin removal, support removal and surface finishing, and the Automat3D and Connect3D software tools. Automat3D uses a proprietary algorithm to vary agitation intensities, temperatures and other process factors during the post-processing cycle, while Connect3D links the hardware with the rest of the factory floor.

The company has launched these products to address an issue that, Bourguet believes, has not always been among the primary considerations of the AM market.

“When I started, everybody was speaking about printing capabilities, printing resolution, but nobody was talking about the finished part. Nobody knew how you got there,” he told TCT. “It won’t be a massively adopted technology unless it is at least equivalent to the more traditional technologies in terms of traceability, repeatability, also sustainability. When traditional technologies are used in the modern world, companies have got their act together and really optimised that. We need 3D printing at this level.”

Supporting Bourguet’s claim is Rösler UK’s Technical Sales Manager Charles Popp. Rösler, through its AM Solutions brand, is a provider of post-processing solutions built from its traditional automated vibratory finishing technology, as well as of select partners, such as PostProcess Technologies. Popp told TCT how, often, post-processing can be ‘a bit of an afterthought’ when purchasing a 3D printer; Hlebec too noted post-processing is often neglected or underestimated. This lack of consideration, as well as limited technology solutions, is why skilled engineers are pulled away from skilled work and deployed on the manual post-processing of printed parts.

AM Flow Commercial Director Carlos Zwikker saw this play out while working at one of the industry’s leading service providers. The often-cumbersome nature of AM post-processing led to the development of AM Flow’s range of connected hardware and software solutions that supplement what the likes of AMT and Rösler offer, tracking and tracing parts throughout the workflow. AM Vision, which uses underlying data to identify parts, is its kernel; AM Logic collects the relevant data that allows users to keep control of their AM process; AM Expert helps to optimise workflows; and there also products for picking, packaging and more.

While these products allow users insights throughout the lifecycle of their parts, which will support the certification of processes in aerospace and medical, Zwikker believes the biggest benefit of automated post-printing solutions is in shortening of innovation cycles.

“Innovations are going to be moved into production much more quickly,” he said. “If we have this fully digitised manufacturing process in place, that’s going to impact the way we produce. And that’s one of those big promises of additive manufacturing.”

Having moved through the development of new parts quicker than before, manufacturers might then be in a position where the demand for this new product dictates the need to scale to tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions. In a bid to resolve the inevitable issues those manufacturers would run into, companies like AMT have been working on concepts that can be integrated into Industry 4.0 factories. At Formnext 2019, the company demonstrated the Digital Manufacturing System, harnessing robotics systems and machine control systems from Mitsubishi Electric to add automatic loading, full traceability and monitoring to its post-processing hardware.

This is, by principle, a digital concept. So, let’s start living up to that.

Adding this automation capacity to its PostPro 3D vapour chemical smoothing system, the company announced in April 2021, would allow users to post-process hundreds of parts each hour per machine, compared with just a few parts manually. Applying these capabilities, however, isn’t quite as simple as you can make it sound.

“The problem with 3D printing,” Crabtree outlined, “is that every part can be unique, and you potentially have a batch size of one. You’re not dealing with the automation of an injection moulding line where two million pieces are all the same. It’s very nuanced.”

“Automation is not a value in itself,” offered Siemens Vice President of AM Dr Karsten Heuser. “It’s always following a holistic cost, productivity and quality driven approach. And by that you define which is the right tailoring of automation to the needs of your problem.”

A year after AMT demonstrated its DMS concept, Siemens partnered with Dyemansion and EOS to present a virtual AM factory demonstrating an automated chain of coordinated production steps for a footwear midsole application. With EOS P 500 platform, DyeMansion’s Print to Product workflow and Siemens’ software solutions generating a digital twin of the production line, the partners ensured the midsoles were manufactured first time right and reduced production costs by 50%.

While the shoe won’t always fit, the potential gains of automated post-processing are clear. Bourguet looked at the wider picture, referencing much of the talk around on-demand and local manufacture over the last 12 months. Reshoring manufacturing is fraught with complexity but is something that makes sense to ensure more efficient and sustainable methods of manufacture.

“And I don’t think you can [address this] by thinking that we are going to compete with low-cost labour that will still be around for decades,” Bourguet continued. “Our vision is a hands-off, lights out environment where machines speak to machines, where the staff are not doing that low level type of task which nobody wants to do, is not very sustainable, and will not always be economically viable. AM needs to be future proof and automated all the way.”

But how does the industry make it happen? Those quoted believe collaboration is pivotal; that listening to customer feedback and accepting there are challenges that need to be addressed is vital; and educating buyers about the back end of AM workflows is a must.

What else is clear is that the interviewees for this feature believe there are opportunities aplenty. Applications that can scale, costs that can be cut, skilled workers that can be better deployed. Crabtree told how, despite the industry’s growth flatlining, AMT’s revenue doubled through 2019/20. An indicator, he said, of the industry maturing. Zwikker agreed and emphasised that the need for automated post-processing solutions simply stems from the uptake and increasing capabilities of 3D printing technology.

“It’s a consequence of success,” Zwikker concluded. “It’s a consequence of growing volumes. But it’s not the desired consequence. And it’s basically a contradiction with a fully digitised principle of additive manufacturing. We’re not about breaking down jobs or putting people out of a job. This is, by principle, a digital concept. So, let’s start living up to that.”

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