When you describe 3D printing to someone who isn’t familiar with it, they may envision something like Stratasys has just unveiled—a robotic arm extruding materials that harden into a solid object, or a large part growing and growing out of a machine that is too small to contain it. These are the future products that Stratasys’ Robotic Composite 3D Demonstrator and Infinite-Build 3D Demonstrator may lead to. But they’re called “demonstrators” with good reason.
That sci-fi vision of the future that 3D printing seems to automatically conjure was partially responsible for the wave of hype surrounding 3D printing that crashed last year. Despite the huge productivity gains and cost savings that businesses have realized with 3D printing over the past two decades, the consumer-based hype outpaced the reality.
“It takes time to build meaningful applications around meaningful technologies,” Stratasys CEO Ilan Levin told a group of journalists and analysts who were invited to its headquarters in Eden Prairie, MN. He took the helm at Stratasys this summer after David Reis resigned. “We’ve been doing that in quiet in our back rooms. This is the first time we’re presenting what is a significant step forward.”
To be clear: Stratasys hasn’t unveiled Terminator-like manufacturing or a Star Trek-like replicator, but it has shown how it expects its Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM)—one of the first additive manufacturing technologies—to fit into the digital factory. It also outlined a new go-to-market strategy. Both the technologies demonstrated and the more integrated business strategy are significant departures from business as usual at Stratasys.
The Importance of Integration
Levin said the company will adopt a more integrated approach to product development where Stratasys will work with customers to add value. That integration would include hardware, software and materials with a focus on repeatability, factory automation and training to help customers design products for 3D printing.
“At the end of the day, it’s about the value we can provide to our customers,” Levin said. “We’re not in the business of inventing a specific process. What we’re trying to do is identify and deliver on specific applications to provide value.”
Three of those customers—Siemens, Ford and Boeing—were on hand to explain how they are collaborating with Stratasys on applications in their industry.
Teri Finchamp, director of Operations and Quality at Boeing Phantom Works said Boeing is looking forward to the size increases promised by the Infinite-Build 3D Demonstrator. “With Infinite-Build, instead of having to make lots of small parts and gluing them together, worrying about if that is going to hold, etc. we now have the ability to grow these much larger parts at a much quicker speed,” she said.
Dr. Ellen Lee, Technical Leader, Additive Manufacturing Research at Ford Motor Co., said the company sees three challenges to expanding its use of 3D printing into production: speed, part performance and the range of functional materials.
“While we’ve been working with Boeing for several years to leverage some of our common needs, there are specific needs the auto industry has—the robustness of the materials, function and durability in our specific environments,” she said. “We are starting to leverage our material supply base to get the composite and thermoplastic materials that meet our needs.”
Going to Great Lengths
For the Infinite-Build 3D Demonstrator, Stratasys took its familiar FDM process that extrudes material, layer by layer in a controlled oven-like environment, and turned it on its side so the part can extend outside of the oven to an “infinite” length. It also incorporated a robotic arm that can fetch more material as needed for extended periods of unmanned operation.
That material is not the familiar filament used in Stratasys’ commercial FDM products. It is a canister of micro-pellets that are delivered via a screw drive where it is compressed and heated to a liquid that can be extruded. According to the company, the process also provides a speed boost of more than 10x over its current FDM printing process.
“It started as proof of concept in my skunk works and transitioned smoothly into development and engineering to where we are with the demonstrator,” said Stratasys founder and FDM inventor Scott Crump, who is now Chairman of the Board and Chief Innovation Officer for the company. “We’ve come a long way, but I think this is just the beginning of offering exciting new solutions and applications in 3D printing.”
Going Outside the Oven
As a part emerges from the back of the Infinite Build 3D Demonstrator’s enclosed environment, the actual building of the part is still being done inside that space. The Robotic Composite 3D Demonstrator, on the other hand, is all out in the open. It’s also unlike Stratasys’ other FDM and Polyjet 3D printing techniques because it isn’t building up a part layer by layer.
The Robotic Composite 3D Demonstrator puts a composite-filament-fed extruder on a robotic arm. The filament is comprised of chopped filament composite fibers. The placement of the material is controlled via toolpaths designed and simulated in Siemens PLM Software’s NX. Siemens’ NX and SINUMERICK CNC software controls the 8-axis robotic arm’s movements, said Arun Jain, VP of Motion Control, Digital Factory at Siemens. Stratasys’ software controls the extrusion. In the demonstration, the material was extruded onto a rotating platform in a continuous spiral to build up a cone-shaped part. No support materials were needed because the robotic arm was able to to turn the part and use gravity to its advantage.
Siemens, a global leader in factory automation as well as design and simulation software, was introduced as a strategic partner during Stratasys’ technology demonstration. Andreas Saar, VP of Strategic Partnerships and head of Additive Manufacturing Initiatives for Siemens PLM Software said there are three major factors that will influence manufacturing in the future:
- Additive manufacturing,
- intelligent automation and
- advanced robotics
“If you bring all three things together, you have a game changer in the industry,” he said. “This is why the demonstrator is so important. We want engineers to re-imagine how they design products today. We want to retool our manufacturing with additive technology. It will actually change how we do business.”
Stratasys Looks Ahead
This is the first time Stratasys has unveiled technology that is not ready to go to market. Rich Garrity, president of Americas for Stratasys, said the motivation behind the early announcement is to present the Infinite Build 3D Demonstrator and the Robotic Composite 3D Demonstrator at the IMTS show in Chicago Sept. 12-17.
“We intend to use the show to gain further feedback,” he said. “We’ll then follow up on that feedback and look toward an ultimate commercialized path for what we’re demonstrating.”
In the future, it’s easy to envision multiple robotic arms—outfitted with 3D scanners, subtractive and finishing tools as well as extruders—building up cars from continuous fiber composites or entire commercial aircraft interiors emerging from a 3D printer. Software not only controls the motion of the hardware, but allows remote visibility into the entire process up and down the supply chain. But that’s a future goal to drive toward, and it’s still a long way off. In the future, we may look back to see that Stratasys’ demonstrators were one of the first steps down that road.
“At end of day, that’s where these guys want to be, long term,” Garrity said. “I think it’s a very exciting time for Stratasys. We’re building on our expertise with FDM and doing it in targeted fashion via key use cases with key partners. We’re shaping exciting, new solutions that will be a step function change in how additive manufacturing impacts applications.”
The technology and material demonstrations were impressive, but the most significant announcement from Stratasys to come out of its press event may have been its integrated go-to-market approach.
As Saar said: “Innovation and industry leaders have to come together to make this enormous change.”
Stratasys’ Levin agreed. “We cannot do this alone,” he said. “The future of additive manufacturing is taking wonderful technologies and applying them to specific applications. Applications come from customers and partners.”