Scaling up automated manufacturing

Online Editor

Katherine Nowill explains how digital tools are accelerating the transition of 3D printing from desktop to at-scale automated manufacturing

3D printing has typically been associated with the production of small 3D resin components layer-by-layer on desktop machines. Granted, the principle process remains the same, however as the industry embraces the multiple benefits of 3D printing, both size and the material used to construct 3D printed objects has changed significantly.

3D printing is very different to subtractive manufacturing, where an item is evolved through the machining, milling or grinding of a solid block of material. Whilst still utilised in some sectors, such as aerospace, subtractive manufacturing is fast falling out of favour with some manufacturers, especially when raw material wastage and the cost of sourcing raw materials are both key considerations in industry today within a constrained global supply chain.

The key differentiators for manufacturers using 3D printing as a proven production method today are many, and these can be translated into unique selling points (USPs) to potential customers, or even enable a manufacturer to tap into new markets and inflate their product inventories.

The range of materials that can now be 3D printed has increased, as has the size of the product to be 3D printed. Entire car bodies can now be constructed using large scale additive manufacturing applications, usually complemented by an industrial robot that makes it possible to use heavy extruder heads that can melt metals and composites, and even lay down aggregate in the construction industry.

All of this is made possible by digital technologies and software, designed specifically to create even complex tool paths that enable the realisation of a concept of structure offline, before any material is laid or a robot is switched on. As a result, further costs and material savings can be achieved.

Prototyping in manufacturing is important to understand the characteristics of a product or concept. Does it work? Is its structural integrity sufficient for the task at hand? Are there any flaws? Typically, prototyping would consist of creating a working scale model, testing it, identifying faults, and going back to the drawing board to start again, which is a very long and expensive process. Today, this can all be achieved on a computer screen by way of a digital twin.

A digital twin is a digital representation of a product or process, a digital counterpart if you like. 3D printing uses a digital template through which both a product and an automated application, using robots, can be simulated. As such, there no longer exists the need for costly, physical iterations of prototypes.

But what binds the two together? The answer is digital tool path generation software. This evaluates the digital structure and designs an optimised tool path that can then support 3D printing at scale. Regardless of size, the digital twin is representative of the finished item, as is the reach and payload of the industrial robot arm that will deliver the material via an extruder.

From construction to life sciences, automated 3D printing is enabling the delivery of ‘print-on-demand’ at-scale, modern manufacturing processes across industry.

Katherine Nowill is with KUKA

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