The software behind 3-D printing

April 28, 2017

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Bart Van der Schueren, chief technology officer of 3-D printing software and services pioneer Materialise, elaborates on the unlikely link between 3-D printing and titanium skull plates.

3-D printing software and services pioneer Materialise is transforming the traditional manufacturing process.

 

In 3D printing, the hardware gets all the attention, but equally important are the companies that provide the underlying backbone of software and services to make 3-D printing possible. Materialise, an international company headquartered in Belgium, lays claim to the largest software development force in the additive manufacturing industry, and it operates one of the largest 3-D printing facilities in the world. CTO Bart Van der Schueren spoke to us about what it will take to push 3-D printing to the next level and about innovations the company is developing to make production with 3-D printing a reality for all.


PwC: What has been Materialise’s journey as a company to date?

Bart Van der Schueren: Materialise has been active for 26 years in additive manufacturing, or 3-D printing. From the start, we have been developing software tools that make it possible to do accurate 3-D printing, originally having a particular focus on serving the medical industry. By the late ’90s, we were collaborating with Phonak and Siemens to develop software tools that would make it possible to 3-D-print hearing aids. It wasn’t until 2010 that we saw significant enthusiasm for a broader range of applications for the additive manufacturing of finished goods. Now, finished goods represent a growing number of the products we are creating.


PwC: Using 3-D printing for production usually means printing on a very large scale, something that you are already doing. How do you optimally manage a fleet of 3-D printers?

Bart Van der Schueren: Monitoring and scheduling a fleet of machines isn’t straightforward, as these printers are quite different from conventional manufacturing machines. With one machine, we can produce ten units or a few hundred or a few thousand components. We can print them in one single batch, or we can print multiple components simultaneously. Either way, the throughput time for all the components together is probably a couple of days.

Efficiently scheduling printing runs is difficult, and the market lacks simple solutions to operate a large number of printers. That’s why we’ve developed a close collaboration between our parts activities and software development to create specific software tools that allow us to maintain control over our many printers. This permits us to monitor which specific part is printing on which machine and when. That allows us to trace a part back to a specific print if something goes wrong.

We work with printers from six or seven different manufacturers internally and with many more through our software division, so we have been developing a kind of a unified or neutral interface that is able to talk to these different machines.

“Monitoring and scheduling a fleet of machines isn’t straightforward, as these printers are quite different from conventional manufacturing machines.”


PwC: One advantage of 3-D printing is that the printer can go from one geometry to the next without any tooling or other changes. Does that mean the industry can push utilization higher, up to 90% percent or above?

Bart Van der Schueren: Typically, 3-D printing involves some operations that take quite some time, including preventive maintenance, cleaning the machine, and just removing and replacing platforms and finished prints. Having said that, I’m convinced that there is nothing that would fundamentally prevent a more automated exchange of platforms. Downtime can be pushed much, much lower. I believe that we can achieve uptimes of 85% to 90%.


PwC: One large benefit of 3-D printing is the reduction of waste. In traditional manufacturing, about 20% of materials are left on the cutting room floor. Can we reduce this with 3-D printing, and how much lower can one go?

Bart Van der Schueren: It depends on the product design. It also depends on the printing method. If you are using filaments and resins, the waste will be less than with powder. A good design is one that doesn’t require too many support structures, since typically the support structures are removed and wasted. But I think waste levels of 10% or lower is possible.

But I think what is more important than the waste is the fact that in designs for 3-D printing, you only use materials where you require them. You can make hollow or lattice structures. That is quite different from traditional manufacturing, in which there is a lot of material in products that you don’t need for mechanical or other reasons. It’s there because there was no easy way to take it out.


PwC: One promise of 3-D printing is to not break the digital thread. What are you doing to integrate design and production systems?

Bart Van der Schueren: An example is our recent partnership with Siemens. They have the NX system, which is a platform that creates designs. They would like designers that use that solution to essentially be able to simply push a button to print the design.

In most cases, you just can’t send a standard design to a printer for printing. There is a preparation step. You need, for example, to generate a structure underneath the metal parts to support them in the proper way during the print process. This is our specialty: file or data conditioning to make data ready for 3-D printing. We provide that know-how to NX. This means that people who are working with NX can generate supports and take other actions to prepare their designs for printing from within the design solutions they already use.

“But I think what is more important than the waste is the fact that in designs for 3-D printing, you only use materials where you require them.”


PwC: One feature needed to move beyond prototyping is in-process inspection during printing, so that any corrective action can be taken in a timely manner. Where are we as an industry in building those capabilities?

Bart Van der Schueren: In our R&D department, we have been developing a number of tools that help us analyze process data to understand if anything is going wrong and how we can intervene in real-time to make the technology more reliable. In the coming years, we will start to bundle a number of these capabilities in the products that will go to market so any 3-D printer can use them.

For example, we recently announced the Materialise inspector solution. Today, this solution enables users to identify potential issues in the designs by simulating the printing process with energy density mapping to help designers understand how the part will perform before actual printing.

I would say that we are at an infancy stage. There’s still a lot of work to do to make real-time process control a reality. We understand that this functionality is necessary for production so we can remove the need for costly trial-and-error testing for our customers.


PwC: Sounds like designing for 3-D printing is not the same as designing for conventional manufacturing. Are designers getting better at designing for 3-D printing?

Bart Van der Schueren: Yes. As designers are getting more experience with 3-D printing, designs are getting better. But the reality is that people are still trained in traditional manufacturing processes and conventional manufacturing systems. And there is still value in designing products that only get their full functionality by combining multiple components and assembling them. To design in the more free-form approach allowed by additive manufacturing requires a different mindset. It requires liberating the mind from the restrictions that have been taught for the past 150 years.


PwC: Can you give us an example of a product in which that new mindset is succeeding?

Bart Van der Schueren: One of the key concepts with additive manufacturing is that you can design products with what we call product properties. We can change the product properties by designing it with specific features.

I will give you a recent example in which we are using this in a very interesting way. We have been making cranio-maxillofacial implants, which are skull plates for people who have had head traumas, and we are producing the skull plates in titanium. Titanium is a metal that has a high heat capacity and conductivity. In other words, if you put a traditional titanium plate in the sun, it will absorb its heat. Put that plate in your head, and it will start cooking your brain.

When people have a traditional titanium skull implant, they always have to wear a hat when they walk in the sun. In fact, they prefer not going into the sun at all. And those same people cannot take a dive in a swimming pool because of the reverse effect: Water is colder than body temperature, and the titanium drains heat away from the brain, resulting in a headache.

So we designed a skull plate made of titanium, but because we can 3-D print it, we have been able to design heat textures into it. It prints these textures directly onto the plate. This makes the thermal performance of our titanium implant identical to the thermal performance of regular bone. Patients who have a Materialise skull implant can walk in the sun. They can take a shower or go swimming without suffering. So it is possible to use 3-D printing to change the properties of a product that would otherwise be unsuited for a particular application.

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