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Final thoughts on formnext 2017

formnext continues for another day, but today is the final day of our coverage. We took this opportunity to hunt for those special stories and solutions that missed our eye so far.

Trinckle and Protiq showed a demo of their solution for customizable inductors. Inductors are used in the hardening of metal part. Each inductor needs to be customized to the part it is supposed to harden. Protiq, a german contract manufacturer is able to produce a well-conducting copper using their 3d printers. This material is great for this kind of devices. Protiq used Paramate to develop a web application that allows their customers to configure an inductor without the need to resort to CAD. Customers can set a few parameters, and the Paramate software builds the corresponding 3d mesh model.

Paramate is developed by trinckle, a german software startup from Berlin. Trinckle focuses on software solutions for additive manufacturing, such as a pricing engine and other tools. Paramate is one of their advanced solutions. It is a toolkit for developing customizable products. Product owners can work with trinckle to make their product customizable through a web interface.

Customizable inductors are exciting for two things: first, it shows once again that the driving force of additive manufacturing as a production technology is mass customization. Starting with rapid prototyping, which can be interpreted as a mass customization application, then onto dental implants, hearing aids and customizable bone implants to finally Carbon3D’s and adidas’ 3d printed midsole, the successful products are for the most part the ones that use mass customization. And second, it is one of the first mass customization solutions that is not a consumer or medical application, but rather a mechanical device for industrial use. These are still rare, as mass customization introduces a degree of freedom into a process chain, which tends to kill efficiency. But in those cases where the benefit of a better fitting part outweighs the drawback of an incomplete or implicit process definition, it is worth the trouble.

A part which is customizable can no longer be defined through a 3d model, be it mesh or parametric, or a 2d technical drawing. It is defined by an algorithm, a computer program. A program is in general more complex than a drawing (i.e. list of curve or surface elements). As the complexity of the abstract representation of our products increases, so does the work required of the developers of these parts. Developing a mechanical part, component or device is going to become more complex, and more challenging. This role in the production process is going to become more demanding, be it called engineer, developer or industrial designer.

As the work becomes more complex, the tools are going to become more complex. While some of them may automate certain complex tasks, in general using these tools, and applying them to solve use cases is going to be a difficult task. This is why experts are required, skilled and experienced people who can navigate the technological landscape of additive manufacturing, its design toolset and its process network. A representative of materialise made this the center of his presentation of the company’s software offerings. He called additive manufacturing art, an art that requires skilled expert. materialise, itself a major part solutions developer, contract manufacturer and software developer for AM has firsthand experience in this field.

Speaking of complexity, this does not stop on the development level. As more and more applications for 3d printed metal parts are discovered, so do the requirements of those parts increase. Anisotropy has to be fixed, density and hardness need to increase. Here Bodycote, a UK company with a strong global presence has a solution: hot iso-static pressing, also known as HIP. Hipping is a sophisticated technical process where the workpiece is both heated, and also pressurized using Argon gas. Heated to a temperature where the part can deform plastically, the gas pressure then uniformly applies to the surface of the part. This means the part shrinks uniformly, as all surfaces are under equal pressure. The deformation also changes the crystal configuration of the workpiece, and decreases the anisotropy that results from the layerwise additive manufacturing process.

A HIPped part has higher ductility and yield strength than its non-HIPped counterparts. Bodycote offers a flexible ordering process which allows for lead times of only one week and low prices. This is useful for long tail applications of additive manufacturing in the metal part production business.

Jumping back from post-processing to the design stage, established software tools are also changing to accommodate the demands of additive manufacturing. With netfabb at the core of its impressive software lineup, Autodesk continues to add collaboration features, machine control and advanced design tools to its software toolchain to empower product developers and design engineers. In the words of Ulf Lindhe, a representative of Autodesk, the goal is to engineer customer success by allowing them to focus on the product throughout the development and pre-production process.

General purpose tools like netfabb go hand in hand with special tools and algorithms that solve specific problems. cellCore is a software startup from Germany, using unique algorithms to automatically design lightweight lattices. The method is particularly useful for sandwich structures and can even be used for other manufacturing methods outside of 3D printing. The model behind the software was developed over several years as research for a phd thesis. Knowing the challenges of adapting a new software tool, particularly one as complex as cellCore, the team behind it has opted to offer design services instead of going the traditional way of developing and selling a software application. For its customers it means that they can get started with cellCore almost instantly and use it for individual projects without having to worry about recurring fees for an automatically renewing software license. A great strength of the cellCore solution: because the lattice is directly derived from the mechanical loads, it is always clear what stresses and strains the part suffers under load, and where. This comes in addition to the added weight savings of around 20% that are routinely achieved when benchmarking cellCore patterns against uniform patterns like honeycombs.

In the end, no matter how you design your part, it needs to be manufactured. In classical manufacturing, very often the product owner also carries out the manufacturing. For complex products and large, sophisticated companies manufacturing may be outsourced to suppliers who have gone through a long and arduous certification and qualification process. Sometimes those suppliers are virtually extensions of the company they are supplying. Additive manufacturing is changing this game. Outsourcing is a lot easier, and it can be handled through a standardized process. Link3D is one of the companies championing that development. The New York startup has built up a manufacturing execution system intended for companies that want to manage their internal additive manufacturing production process as well as integrate AM contract manufacturers into their sourcing process. Link3D has put together a network of over 150 service bureaus. Companies that use the Link3D MES can put out an RFQ which goes out to all suppliers in the network. All data is handled securely by Link3D, and the supplier network is curated by Link3D.

These are just some of the many stories that happened at formnext 2017, and more are going to happen during the last day of the expo tomorrow. Some stories are to die for, but need to stay secret – at least for now. Throughout the week, countless deals were made, partnerships were forged, and alliances were built. Hardware, software and services were exchanged amounting to an estimated volume of more than a hundred million euros. The expo continues to be a central hub for the industry to meet, and represents an annual event where you need to go if you are serious about additive manufacturing. formnext 2017 has been a fantastic experience.

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