Q&A: Markforged details the capabilities of its FX20 composite 3D printing system

Ahead of Formnext, Markforged announced the launch of the FX20, its fastest and most sophisticated composite 3D printing system yet. And as expected, when the Frankfurt trade show came around, the machine was attracting swathes of visitors to the stand.

It boasts a build volume of 525 x 400 x 400 mm, a heated build chamber that can reach and maintain temperatures of up to 200°C, the capacity to process a carbon-fibre reinforced ULTEM 9085 material, and the support of Markforged’s Eiger and Blacksmith software solutions. As the company facilitated the first introductions to the FX20 at Formnext, TCT caught up with Markforged’s Director of Product Management Tom Muscolo [TM] to learn more. 

TCT: What was the motivation for the launch of the FX20?

TM: We’ve got 13,000+ customers at this point and they absolutely love our product, but the one persistent feedback that we receive is, ‘we want to be able to do more with it.’ They love the strength that we offer, they love the print quality, they love the reliability, they love the real seamless workflows, but they wanted to extend it to more applications. And so for us, that meant they really wanted to go bigger, they really wanted their parts faster and they really wanted a new universe of materials that we could print. And so hotter became a requirement for the printer. With bigger, we get larger, continuous fibre reinforced parts. Because of the more limited build volume that we have had so far, people have come up with great way of joining parts together, but you still don’t get that strength of a continuous fibre reinforced piece because you’ve got those localised areas where there’s no fibre reinforcement.

And then for high heat, chemical resistance, very demanding FST applications, high temp thermoplastics were being asked for by a lot of our customers. And so we were offering that. Lastly, when you scale up the size of the parts the way we have, you have to go faster otherwise your prints will stretch into days and weeks. And so we’ve addressed that. From a spec standpoint, we’re nearly five times larger in build volume than the X7 compared to default settings, which is what over half of our users use to print their parts, and we’re eight times faster. And we’re starting with ULTEM 9085 as our first high temp thermoplastic, plus we have a dedicated secondary support material, breakaway support material for that. We’ve extended our continuous fibre reinforcement technology to ULTEM so we’ve come up with a carbon fibre that’s pre pregged for ULTEM for the right bonding.

TCT: The machine is described as the fastest and most sophisticated printer Markforged has released – can you explain what makes it so sophisticated?

TM: Historically, our machines have been beautifully simple by design. And even with that simplicity, because we control that full stack of hardware, software, materials, we really get the performance that we’re looking for out of them, but to hit some of the things that I’d mentioned before: bigger, faster, hotter, it just required more complexity. We don’t add more complexity than we would like to into our machines, but the reality is, when you go that fast, when you print hotter, things need to change. And so, for example, if you want to print high temp thermoplastics well, we needed to get more heat into the head, we needed to up the the chamber temperature environment to 160°+ plus up to 200° is what we designed it to, and you really need high thermal uniformity to get good, uniform, consistent part properties. Aerospace is definitely a focus for us and thermal uniformity and consistency in the parts is the most paramount thing in that industry. And so, you need heaters, and then in order to not roast all the electronics and control the condition of the hardware on the upper end, you need thermal isolation and you need bigger heaters. All those things really add moving mass, and so then you’ve got to increase the motor size. When you do that, you need to beef up the structure. Then to control it, we added micron precision linear encoders on each axis. With that, we just get this level of visibility that we’ve never had before. It’s pretty unprecedented. And then closed loop feedback control system, that really lets us understand exactly where that print head location is, control around it. We’ve always had our proprietary print file format – it’s not G code, because we think that there are limitations with G code – and we’ve evolved that file format with FX 20, so we’re getting better control that’s going to result in better accuracy and better repeatability, better surface finish with the larger platform, with the higher speeds. So a big advancement there that has definitely added some sophistication to the platform.

TCT: Taking that all into account, how does the performance of the FX20 compare to previous Markforged machines and other composite solutions on the market?

TM: Yeah, so one is bigger parts than we’ve ever printed before, 525 by 400 by 400 millimetres is the build volume. And that’s for the single nozzle. Printing with multiple nozzles, it’s 500 by 400 by 400. So that’s continuous fibre reinforced parts, in some cases, secondary support material all in a pretty large build volume that, having done some research with customers that we’d be targeting for this, for example, there’s a helicopter customer who has done a full breakdown of one of their products, and they said 80% of what we would want to additively manufacture, we could print in this build volume. And so it felt like a sweet spot 80/20 situation on the size. Print speed, so, as I mentioned before, eight times faster than default print settings that our custom customers are used to. We’ll have the ULTEM 9085, so, new properties that can be addressed there and then surface finish and print quality is something that’s really hard to quantify, but if you’ve held our parts, they look good and we’ve been able to maintain that with this platform. So I see that as a differentiator.

We’ve benchmarked off of competitors parts and talked to customers, and one thing they’re excited about is having to do less, or none at all, post processing, in order to be able to use the parts and end use applications. And so whereas with printers that don’t have the same surface finish, there’s a post processing operation, like a vapour smoothing operation required, or they’re using like Bondo and sandpaper. I think, to really achieve this dream of distributed global production, you really need to pull the manual labour and the dirty and demanding manual jobs out of the picture. With this platform, we get ever closer to that, because you can really use the parts right off the print bed.

TCT: How has Markforged managed to increase the print speed to such an extent without compromising on print quality?

TM: There are some physics limitations that you can’t break, but ultimately, if you’re controlling the position of that printhead to a high degree, and you’re able to extrude the amount of material you expect you can extrude and are able to control that environment, you can do these things. We’re not breaking the sound barrier or anything, everything’s moving a lot faster, but we have the control systems in place to be able to support it. We’ve got linear encoders on each axis that are really controlling the gantry position, so that’s a step up from what we did before. We were monitoring servo position, so at the motor we’re controlling, and we have a feedback system there, but over time, belts can stretch, bearings can get a little wonky, things can happen. And so by measuring even closer to the actual nozzle point, we get better precision resolution there. So if you have the power to do it and you have the control, then you need to give it the right instructions. That’s where we really evolved this print file format. I can’t say much about it, we’ve got some some kind of IP in process, but with this new print file format, and what our software team is able to do in slicing, we’ve been able to improve that surface finish, even despite going faster, and we’re comparing these parts to X7 – that’s really been our benchmark as we go through this. And my requirement has been we need to be as good as the X7 or better. These parts are looking fantastic.

TCT: What has been the motivation to look at the file format? What are the challenges you’ve been looking to solve there?

TM: For us, it’s all about the part. It’s an obsessive focus on the part. And we identified limitations in the machine code that don’t allow you to get the perfect part. It comes down to control, it comes down to really wanting to have a high resolution control of exactly what the printers doing at all moments. And with our philosophy of really having all disciplines – we’re a systems company, so we have hardware engineers, materials engineers, we have software engineers – it really gives us the breadth of technical levels to solve for objective function, which is an incredible part.

TCT: What are the big market and applications opportunities with the FX20?

TM: Tooling, jigs and fixtures – helping customers make their end use products. We’ve already printed out benchmark parts for some of our most strategic automotive accounts that are [doing] really big end of arm tooling, that’s going on the end of a FANUC robot that’s kind of zipping around and helping assemble vehicles. By lightening that piece, the head speeds can go up, and they get more efficiency out of that robot because instead of using a piece of steel, they’re using continuous fibre reinforced composite.

That’s just one example, but then in end use parts we also see some exciting applications. So we’ve sent some benchmark parts to an oil and gas customer of ours, an aerospace customer of ours and we’re definitely seeing a lot of interest. I think the aerospace industry, there’s a lot of legacy of ULTEM 9085 thanks to the work that Stratasys has done. And so they know what it is, they understand the material properties, there’ll have to be some amount of equivalency that these customers do to say, ‘hey, is this material printed on the Markforged platform? What performance does it get me?’ but it’s already a well understood material, so it’s not like they need to put it through a full a major qualification programme. Then they can take that part and embed continuous fibre reinforcement in it. So I think a lot of the applications that I’ve seen in aerospace so far are purely cosmetic, or non structural, so these are covers and clips and really thin panels that would otherwise have been thermoformed. And I think what we’re opening up with continuous fibre reinforcement is level of strength and stiffness that allows it to be used for semi structural applications.

TCT: How significant is the launch of the ULTEM 9085 material and what opportunities does that open up to users of the FX20?

TM: So, it’s stronger than Onyx. It also has better chemical resistance than Onyx. Across a wider range of temperatures, it maintains its structural performance. And the FRA variant of Onyx that we have is good for flame, smoke and toxicity to a pretty wide range of parts. But there’s a limit on the amount of surface area you can have on the exterior of parts that are on the cabin interiors, so there are like some limitations that ULTEM doesn’t have. For those situations, it’s a better material for aerospace. ULTEM’s a stiff material, but you can flex it, it’s not an incredibly stiff material and so being able to put continuous fibre reinforcement in it just really strengthens and stiffens those parts. We have a customer right now, who we’ve sent parts to, we’re going to get them a beta printer, but they’re basically developing these kind of anti UAS – unmanned aerial system – components that go on Humvees and go on other military vehicles. And with FX20, their plans are to do like end use production of hundreds of units of these for this customer, and at this point, I don’t know how much I can say about the part but it’s a pretty large, substantial part, there are fasteners that go through it. It’s the structure or the shell of this anti UAS system that they’re developing.

TCT: For certain applications, there are a lot of hoops to jump through in the aerospace sector to get certification – will it be a challenge with a carbon-fibre reinforced ULTEM material for parts to be certified?

TM: Familiarity with ULTEM doesn’t necessarily translate to familiarity and comfort with ULTEM plus continuous fabric reenforcement, so there’s going to be some time that it’s going to take to work with the industry to help really develop an understanding and qualification of that. What we see is there’s a range of aerospace applications and we don’t have false expectations that Airbus or Boeing are going to be designing the next-gen C brackets out of this in two years, or one year. That’s the ultimate vision; parts are coming off the line going on production commercial aircraft, but the reality is, in the short term, there are a tonne of really smaller, fast moving segments of aerospace that we can address today. And so that’s like maintenance, repair and overhaul of existing jets, it’s with urban Air Mobility is actually a surprisingly booming space, thanks to a lot of the trends that got us to go public over the summer.

We have interest from some companies that are developing these little urban Air Mobility platforms, drones and things like that. And then, in the defence world, the barriers are lower, basically, the aerospace companies hand their equipment over to the DOD and then the DoD is tasked with supporting this equipment. Defence MRO is a fascinating space, and very much can benefit from additive manufacturing and they have a lot more flexibility around what they qualify and when and what needs to go into that. So, there are other pockets that we’ll be able to address in the short term with the technology, and then we hope to see it grow into some of the applications that require even more qualification.

TCT: What other materials are immediately available to the users of the FX20 and what other materials might me be made available at a later date?

TM: We have our existing material set, we’re going to get that compatible with FX 20 first. So, when the first printer comes off for our line, like mandatory is it’s printing great with Onyx plus carbon fibre, ULTEM plus carbon fibre, and then we’re going to sequence through all of our other materials and get those functional. And then in parallel, we’ll be developing new materials for the platform. Some of that research work is going on right now. And then we’re definitely very excited to see feedback that we get from customers once they get the platform of what they’re interested in seeing next. And we’ve built the performance headroom in to be able to print a lot of materials. So, we’ve got the elevated build chamber temperature, thermal control, we’ve got a printhead that really supports it. There’s a lot we can do with it and we’ll let the market guide us.

TCT: Which of Markforged’s software solutions will be applicable to the FX20?

TM: We really see [Eiger and Blacksmith] as key to enabling this distributed global production model. Blacksmith specifically, our first instantiation today is a laser on the printhead with scanning parts, that’s what we do with the X7. It’s not just the laser on a printhead scanning parts, we view the concept is bigger than that, it’s autopilot for manufacturing. And so we have a different sensor suite on on FX20 than we do on the X7, but our plans are to apply that concept to FX20 as well. With Eiger fleet you get the controls, the insight from a managerial standpoint, to do this global distributed manufacturing use case where you have have an engineer at headquarters who’s then preparing a part, that’s then printable around the world, wherever there’s a printer, and then technicians at that site will go and print that part. And the barrier’s low, our printers are really easy to use. So you can really pop these anywhere, minimal training, get customers up and running. And you don’t even need an inspection operation anymore, because with Blacksmith built in that’s doing part inspection reports at the end of the process so it gives the original part designer full confidence that that parts making there in a secure way, that is being printed properly and it’s coming off the print bed and it’s ready to go. So we see, as a full platform, it’s really essential for this whole model of where we see the potential of really revolutionising supply chains.

TCT: With the FX20 set to be commercially available next year, what happens between now and then?

TM: We have a couple printers going to beta customers, that we’ll be able to start getting feedback on for our own best customers. And so we’ve already done several rounds of vetting of the product and have made improvements over time but getting it into the hands of users will just be another viewpoint. And so we’ll have that programme going for a few months.

Making one or five of something is really easy. Our model is we work with contract manufacturers. The supply chain right now has troubles, I wouldn’t say it’s driving our schedule, but basically, between beta programme, we have to go through global compliance and certification to ship into all the markets that we sell. This is something that I think we do but not necessarily all small companies do. And then we need to ramp our contract manufacturing partner to be able to basically hand the keys over, and we’re on site with them and we always follow along with the progress, but we’ve got to ramp them up and get them experience of building the platform and ironing out all the details there. There’s a whole ramp plan.

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