WATCH STRATASYS'S DEMO FROM IMTS 2016
Assistant Editor, Laura Griffiths visits Stratasys’ headquarters in Minneapolis to learn how key collaborations with leaders in the aerospace and automotive industries are shaping the future of FDM.
Minnesota; Land of 1000 Lakes, birthplace of the Sears department store company back in 1886 (according to an enthusiastic bus driver/self-appointed tour guide), and home to one of the additive manufacturing (AM) industry's leading companies. TCT was invited to Stratasys HQ get a first look at what’s being called a “step change” for AM.
Stratasys, a company of whose origins can be traced back to an invention in the garage of founder and Chief Innovation Officer, Scott Crump during an experiment with a hot glue gun from which Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM) was born, has become a pillar of the additive manufacturing industry. 30 years after this groundbreaking invention, there are now around 150,000 Stratasys machines, both FDM and PolyJet, installed across the globe and the company is now embarking on the “future of FDM” in the form of two “3D Demonstrators”.
To give you an idea of how prolific this technology has become, FDM is currently used in 90% of machines in the industry for everything from plastics to concrete and this latest news provides a snapshot of what the future of this pioneering technology could deliver in terms of size, material and automation. As Stratasys’ recently appointed Chief Executive Officer Ilan Levin, expressed during the launch: “This is the first time we're showing something that is a significant leap forward while resting on the basic technologies that you're all very familiar with.”
These aptly titled demonstrators, named the Infinite-Build 3D Demonstrator and the Robotic Composite 3D Demonstrator, have been in development for the last 5-7 years and they’re now working away at Stratasys’ unassuming headquarters in Minneapolis with input from high profile partners in the aerospace and automotive sectors, which currently include, The Boeing Company, Ford Motor Company and Siemens PLM Software.
“With our new emphasis on use cases, customers and collaboration we recognise the need to give out early and learn from our customers,” Dick Anderson, Sr. Vice President of R&D and Site Manager at Stratasys told TCT. “Those who are really serious are going to come back to us and ask us more deep questions, tell us more about their real requirements, so that when we do create the final product it will be even better matched to what customers really want.”
Infinite-Build 3D Demonstrator at Stratasys HQ.
They’re both huge contraptions of exposed machinery built in shells that utilise robotic arms to construct some of the biggest and most complex parts we’ve seen from Stratasys to date. Straight off the bat commercial availability is not in its immediate plans and to reflect that, these are not polished machines, boxed off and ready to ship. Think more along the lines of fully functional, concept models that have been built with the specific needs of customers and partners in mind to test and show what is possible.
The first of these is the Infinite-Build 3D Demonstrator, essentially a huge MC 900 3D printer turned on its side, which provides a limit-free z-axis to work with. The X and Y-axes platforms are 2.5 ft. by 4 ft. long and the infinite length means this technology could fit many applications that are otherwise not possible with Stratasys’ current line-up, though those on show for the debut are fairly niche. We’re shown a huge rocket-faring tool and an interior panel for a plane measuring several feet long to demonstrate how this technology could be used to customise aircraft for different passenger experiences. The transport industry is where the Infinite-Build appears to fit most comfortably.
The machine benefits from a new extrusion system, which uses Stratasys’ common materials such as Ultem 9085 thermoplastic but in a micro-pellet formation. These micro-pellets are extruded through toolheads, which can be easily switched out to allow for multi-material printing or easy changeovers should one fail. The new extrusion system uses a screw approach where canisters of material are attached onto the end of the extruder making it easier to control. This
also means that the machine benefits from the ability to use different toolheads such as a touch probe or subtractive tools, which makes the Infinite-Build, and its sister Composite machine, extremely flexible.
“We're very excited for what we can do and the scalability it's going to provide,” Anderson commented. “As of today we've got extruders for very particular thermoplastics but we are imagining other devices that could be used to measure the part or to perform subtractive techniques such as drilling or polishing so there's no question we can put other things on the end of both systems.”
Boeing is currently using the demonstrator to explore production of low volume lightweight parts whereas Ford is evaluating the technology and working with Stratasys to develop new applications for automotive-grade printing materials. Stratasys wouldn’t say whether or not these companies have their own demonstrators set up on their factory floors just yet but during a tour of the facility they did reveal that these industry heavyweights are not the only customers interested in having parts printed using the demonstrators, sharing that one commercial train company is looking at having interior parts manufactured using the Infinite-Build.
The second solution, the Robotic Composite 3D Demonstrator has been developed with Siemens PLM Software and integrates additive manufacturing with industrial motion control hardware. The traditional method of making composite parts is extremely labour intensive but this approach is set to transform the process with the ability to build complex parts within hours rather than days. The system uses an 8-axis robotic arm to facilitate precise, directional material placement without the need for support structures to create lightweight, high value, composite parts quickly. Unlike the Infinite-Build, the machine uses the same traditional materials as previous Stratasys FDM machines in their common filament format, extruding highly controlled fibre in Carbon Fibre Filled Thermoplastic filament.
Even without putting the technology side-by-side with the traditional long composite building method, it’s an extremely fast process and in the space of less than two hours we saw a complex, aerospace Dome part printed to completion on Stratasys’ factory floor. This is due to the flexibility afforded by the 8-axis arm, which eliminates the layer-by-layer transitions and instead uses a single spiral tool path to build a part. The part is continuously orientated meaning the robotic arm can print from the inside out in any axis required.
Robotic Composite 3D Demonstrator in action.
Composites are big news and if you read our Editor, Daniel O’Connor’s piece on EnvisionTEC’s new SLCOM composite 3D printer in the second to last issue of TCT, you’ll know how additive thought leaders are trying to condense this traditionally manual and arduous process of making composite parts. That’s exactly what Stratasys are doing here with the Robotic Composite 3D Demonstrator and as a result are going after the automated production of high value, light composite parts, in particular the aerospace composite structures market, which this year is estimated at $13 billion.
“The Robotic Composite 3D Demonstrator was driven by our customers and the ability to replace today’s processes that are costing too much and are too labour intensive,” Anderson commented. “It’s requires an incredible amount of manual labour so we looked at how that could be automated and to automate that you need a robot because you're going to have to follow some
strange patterns and that's how we landed here.”
Siemens PLM Software is powering the machines with its SINUMERIK CNC control and NX PLM software. Arun Jain, VP, Motion Control, Digital Factory US, Siemens explained how in order to remain competitive in the factory of the future, digitisation is needed to gain a competitive edge which means the marriage of additive manufacturing, intelligent automation and advanced robotics to completely change how we make parts.
“Siemens have a long history in motion control, robotics, tool path generation and so forth and they've been wanting to get involved in additive manufacturing because they see the industry drastically changing over the next 20 to 30 years,” Anderson continued. “I would say we approached each other with mutual intent, we both see a perfect fit here between our 3D printing capabilities and their motion planning capabilities and robotics.”
Demonstrating what’s possible
Stratasys’ decision to unveil 3D Demonstrators rather than a complete commercial product is an interesting but fitting choice that’s inline with the company’s shift into focusing on the wider 3D ecosystem and customer centric solutions - understanding first and foremost what customers want to get out of these technologies. They’re standing firm that there are no plans for commercialisation yet so no details on pricing have been revealed or whether or not their plan is to use these demonstrators to develop more tailored solutions designed specifically for individual customers depending on size and material requirements. It forms part of a bigger company ethos that’s less interested in selling thousands of solus machines in favour of providing complete solutions that are designed for exact applications and take the user all the way from design to manufacture and beyond.
“I've been here [at Stratasys] for 11 years. Originally we did printers and a little on materials but now we need to do everything because we know manufacturers and our customers are going to require it,” Anderson commented. “We have had a very small list of select customers come in and see the system so far and each of them has said, “You're kidding me, is this really Stratasys? I can't believe you're doing what you're doing” so it's been a huge surprise and exciting. This is the future so it's been wildly accepted.”
New extrusion system uses micro-pellets as feedstock.
Earlier this year Stratasys unveiled its multi-material, full colour J750 3D printer at a similarly big launch event so when just a few short months later the company announced it had yet more big news to share it was anyone’s guess what this would be. Unlike the J750, these technologies are not simply an update to existing capabilities and they do in fact deserve to be hailed as a step-change. When we talk about the 3D printing industry maturing, the mind usually wanders towards metals and heavy-duty industrial applications but it was good to see a company embracing what it knows best and using all of its years of industry know-how to produce its own version of what maturity in the industry means by taking the most popular method of 3D printing in the world and showing how it can quite literally be turned on its head.
Both demonstrators are going on display to the public for the first time at IMTS 2016 in Chicago in September where Stratasys hopes to attain feedback from the wider manufacturing industry about possible applications and where they can develop it further. With intentions clear and a well-positioned decision to deliver what the industry needs, it’s evident that the partnerships we’ve seen so far are just the beginning.
Learn more: Vynce Paradise, Head of Advanced Part Manufacturing at Siemens PLM Software will present at the TCT Show Conference on 29th September about how partnerships like this are driving the industrialisation of additive manufacturing. Register to attend for FREE and visit Stratasys on stand E14.