Automating the Additive Manufacturing Process

Automating the Additive Manufacturing Process

Over the course of this article, we will be highlighting -

  • How automation can unlock value in industrial 3D printing
  • Examples of solutions that incorporate Additive Manufacturing (AM) and automation
  • How Remix has supported past clients with automation challenges

Why Automate 3D Printing?

3D printing has long been endorsed as the future of manufacturing, with advocates citing 3 key advantages:

  1. Cheap and easy setup - enabling high mix, low volume & on-demand production
  2. Flexible design - enabling novel internal structures for material saving, strength to weight ratios and other beneficial properties
  3. Deskilled design & production - democratising production and enabling vertical integration of processes

Although the shift from hype to reality has been slow, Additive Manufacturing has steadily shifted from primarily a prototyping technology all the way to end-use production. In 2017, only 27% of 3D printed parts were for end-use applications, this has grown to 62%in 2021.

This growth has been driven by a number of improvements - increased trust in the process, improved materials (primarily metals), and faster print times. With these in mind, there are still improvements to be unlocked before AM reaches its full potential.

At Remix Robotics we've identified two key areas where automation can enhance Additive Manufacturing and continue to drive growth -

  1. Reduced operator touch time
  2. Increased design flexibility

1. Reduced operator touch time

As a prototyping technology, operator intervention was not an important consideration for AM users. However, as the technology scales into production volumes, the duration and frequency of human intervention bring about a greater impact on the overall workflow. Tasks such as tending to machines, removing support and quality assurance become bottlenecks and roadblocks to an ideal production process. Reducing human intervention brings four key advantages:

  • Reduced skill shortages - This is the most common reason cited across industries for implementing automation as COVID, Brexit, etc. have increased the risk of being understaffed
  • Reduced labour costs - As the process scales into higher production volumes, labour becomes a greater proportion of the part cost
  • Increasing responsiveness -  End to end automation allows for truly lights out production that can produce on-demand 24/7 without the need for operators on site
  • Increased quality & learning - Humans are an inherent source of uncertainty, full automation in collaboration with IoT sensors allows detailed data capture and traceability

Machine Tending

Automating material loading and the unloading of finished parts from 3D Printers is one of the simplest places to start for a manufacturer. Voodoo Manufacturing implemented a conveyor and cobot tending system to remove printed parts 24 /7. The process allowed operators to move from continuous intervention to infrequent batches & resulted in a 300% increase in productivity. This is a common application of robotics to 3D printing but is generally only applied to prototype quality systems (see also Prusa's Print Farm). Remix has developed the first industrial AM tending system for Fortus 900 machines, see the case studies at the end.

Automated Support Removal

There are a number of machines on the market for automated support removal based on the type of AM process, but these can be further improved with additional automation. ExOne has developed a de-sanding system that connects directly to their printers, reducing material removal time by 95%. There is still a large opportunity to develop solutions for FDM support removal as the process is still very manual.

3D printer

Automated Inspection

AM Flow has developed a system to automatically identify and triage components using their machine vision system. Parts arrive from production and based on their geometry can be sorted and sent to post-processing or shipping as required. Their system does not incorporate quality control which would also bring significant benefits.

2. Increased Design Flexibility

Engineers love designing for AM as it allows them much more flexibility from complex geometries to internal features. Implementing robotics allows AM to double down on these benefits by enabling:

  • 'Outside the box' printing
  • Improved strength and structural properties
  • Novel combinations with other processes (hybrid manufacturing)

Constructions Robots

Construction robots have been on the scene for a few years now with a range of cartesian and6 axis concrete printing robots being used to print buildings. Baubot has a particularly innovative solution, they have developed a multifunctional mobile robotic system capable of 3D printing in concrete, placing steel reinforcement bars, welding and milling.  This is a great example of printing 'outside the box and hybrid manufacturing. To see another example of hybrid 3D printing see our case study below.

Composite 3D Printers

Markforged has pioneered 3Dprinted composites and made it accessible to many, but their systems have not been capable of the true 3D composite production required to gain the full advantages of composite properties. A number of academic institutions are moving towards continuous fibre 3D printing by using 6 axis robots and Arevo has built a fully automated cell capable of continuous carbon fibre construction 30X faster than manual production.

additive manufacturing technology

How Remix Can Support

We hope these examples have given you an idea of what is possible when AM is combined with automation, many of the examples are either bespoke to very specific applications, tailored to a specific brand of machine or not available commercially.

Remix Robotics is an automation design agency that supports clients across industries with the selection, development and integration of bespoke automation.  Remix can help assess options and build an automated 3D printing system tailored to a client's specific needs. To see how we've helped two clients with their AM challenges:

Case Study - Lights Out Production for Aerospace 3D Printing

Our client specialises in the production of end-use 3D printed aerospace interiors. They came to us with the challenge of improving machine utilisation and data traceability required for the certification of 4 Fortus 900 3D printers.

Remix undertook a Discovery project to analyse the process and determine an optimal solution to the challenge. After demonstrating the expected KPIs and business case, Remix developed an automated tending solution for transferring parts from the printers to cooling chambers.

This resulted in a 100% increase in utilisation, a 50% reduction in headcount and end to end data traceability for each part. See the video for more -

3d printing for aerospace and metal additive manufacturing

Remix Robotics is an automation design agency that builds custom robotic systems for companies including DHL, Mercedes F1& Small Robot Company.

Jack Pearson