SSC CGL conducts an interview

3D printing is ready for production use

Last year, 48 percent of companies that deal with additive manufacturing also used 3D printing in production. This is shown by a current study published by Sculpteo's market researchers under the title "The State of 3D Printing". Although this percentage is still below the proportion of those who only implement proof of concepts or build prototypes with 3D printers, the increase is considerable compared to 2017, when only 38 percent used 3D printers in production.

This is also related to the fact that 3D printing has gotten better. 80 percent of the 1,300 3D printing users surveyed by Sculpteo worldwide say that they could have significantly increased the speed of their innovation processes. 63 percent predict that additive manufacturing will play an important role in the production and business context.

Quality control challenge

When asked about the challenges associated with 3D printing, around half named quality control. This is followed by the preparation of the print files, the maintenance, the setup of the machine and the preparation of the print jobs. Nevertheless, most companies want to continue on this path once they have started. Mostly, you expect many additional use cases in the next few months.

The respondents see the greatest advantage in the mapping of complex geometries, the fast iterations in the creation of products and prototypes as well as in cost and speed advantages. But they want more reliable technologies, better and more environmentally friendly materials as well as easier usability in order to take the decisive steps forward.

But how does 3D printing work in practice? We wanted to know more and we visited the engineering office industrialpartners GmbH in Frankfurt am Main, user of a 3D printing machine from HP Inc. Managing Director Jens Arend answered questions at COMPUTERWOCHE, as did Frank Petrolli, responsible for the German business with 3D printers at HP. Everything about 3D printing on CIO.de.

Questions for 3D printing professionals

In your opinion, has 3D printing made it into production?

Jens Arend: We have definitely left the prototyping stage behind us. When it comes to the production of larger series, we would use the injection molding process as before. In the meantime, however, we also produce medium-sized series using additive manufacturing processes.

When we made the decision to buy the Multi Jet Fusion from HP two years ago, we were sure that parts printing would have arrived in the industry. Today we can deliver high-quality series parts made of plastic. That is why we also speak of additive manufacturing. The quality is comparable to conventional manufacturing methods, but the flexibility and speed is higher and the costs can be reduced sustainably, especially for the production of small and medium-sized series.

Of course for us it's about small series, that's our market niche. But the volume is growing, more and more companies are thinking about replacing parts made using injection molding with plastic materials using additive manufacturing. We do both. We supply conventionally produced injection molded parts and now also plastic parts from additive manufacturing, which we say are suitable for the customer's environment with its temperature and load requirements. We rely on the certificates that HP issues.

How good are the materials now?

Frank Petrolli: PA11 and PA12 in particular are currently available. The quality is comparable to the materials for classic production. The expansion of printing materials continues. At HP, we don't develop these ourselves, but rely on partners such as Evonik or BASF, who certify their materials for our hardware and sell them through us. To this end, we have created an open material platform that works like an app store. In order to advance in industrial use, the material plays a very important role.

What kind of small series are you producing at industrialpartners?

Arend: We develop individual parts or assemblies made of plastic on behalf of customers, which we then manufacture using additive manufacturing processes, among other things. We also produce complex assemblies that have mechanical properties that can only be achieved through the use of additive manufacturing.

One customer is, for example, a company in the dental industry from Hessen. It develops and produces equipment and instruments for dental practices and dental laboratories. The company is just beginning to think about not only substituting individual, previously conventionally produced components with the use of additive manufacturing, but also revising entire assemblies in accordance with the requirements of additive manufacturing. The company hopes that this new development will primarily result in a reduction in parts and associated costs, as well as a possible improvement in the systemic properties of these assemblies.

We develop such parts and assemblies with programs such as Creo or Solidworks, test them and then deliver in smaller or larger batches. In consultation with the customer, we decide which process will be used for production - either with our own 3D printer, which we have here on site, or we buy additional 3D printing capacities depending on the situation. Sometimes we also produce the parts using conventional injection molding, if the quantities involved are large.

If we're able to turn two or three parts into a smart assembly that we can additive manufacturing, everyone is happy. Further advantages are weight savings if we manufacture parts from plastic instead of metal. The customer saves weight and costs, can react more quickly, order depending on the situation and has no inventory.

It is important that we can continuously react to changes in production. It's well known: you develop a product, deliver it, get feedback from the market and have to make corrections. This is difficult with injection molded parts, the injection molding tool has to be changed or even rebuilt, which always entails high costs. When we have produced a part in additive manufacturing, the data record is simply changed and I can incorporate the changes in the next batch. The part price is retained.

Petrolli: This is not only an issue for small series manufacturers. The major automobile manufacturers are also dealing with this. A large number of machines are often already in use here. With additional automation, the output can be increased significantly. In addition, they then have their own internal service office, for example, which is often the home of equipment manufacturing, which prints special tools using the 3D process.

How big are the parts you make?

Petrolli: In terms of format, I would say DIN A4 in height and width, 60 centimeters in depth. That is the available installation space, but it cannot be used 100 percent. Then how big the packing density is in this installation space also plays a role.

With a favorable build density, we can print 162 parts from a 30 cubic centimeter part. If you put that in relation to the production machine, we come somewhere in the range of 40,000 to 50,000 parts printed per year. But we also have customers who produce over 50,000 parts a day.

We are also on the subject of software: we can precisely control every point of material that is printed into a powder bed by a drop of liquid. This is highly precise and comparable to injection molding, where we sometimes use the same plastic with PA 11 or PA12.

Arend: It takes about one working day for a filled installation space to be completely produced. Then the various parts have to be reworked and, if necessary, painted. We assume a production period of four to five working days.