Throughout 2020, and still so in some cases during 2021, businesses were marred as they adjusted to the onset of coronavirus. Remote work became the norm as person-to-person contact led to high rates of transmissions and it quickly became clear that most industries were not prepared for such a drastic change in their day-to-day operating procedures. Global supply chains were one of the first pillars of the economy that buckled to the changes, as import/exports and production greatly suffered along with manufacturing of products.
You are likely feeling these effects.
To combat these challenges, manufacturers turned to additive manufacturing when they realized that they could efficiently and safely print much-needed materials in a timely manner. In fact, additive manufacturing grew by 7.5% in 2020. This was largely demonstrated in the healthcare industry, where hospitals printed face shields, ventilators, contactless door handles, and other tools to aid in their patient care and reduce virus transmissions.
The first step was to adopt 3D printing and leverage its benefits for short-term success during the pandemic. Now that the world has somewhat adjusted to the “new, new normal,” it is important for those companies that adopted 3D printing to examine all of its benefits. For example, while most 3D-printing ecosystems operate as open-loop feedback systems, it is the systems that operate using closed-loop feedback that will be key in transitioning the industry from prototyping to manufacturing.
Open-loop feedback has helped push the additive-manufacturing market to where it is today. These printing ecosystems input commands and specs of desired products, then utilize the materials to create them as close to the desired result as possible. Closed-loop printing, however, can analyze each layer produced in real-time and then—through advanced algorithms—feed that data back to correct for any imperfections when laying down the next layer. The result is quality-assurance and consistency. Optimizing the printing process in real-time allows for new use cases, improved end-use parts, and a more reliable printing process.
These capabilities are vital for any industry where ensuring high quality of manufactured parts is essential. Closed-loop feedback control allows for a new standard of accuracy and precision of manufactured additive parts. Tests show that the dimensions of parts and features are highly repeatable with low standard deviation and high accuracy (+/- 30 microns); this high degree of repeatability is important for any manufacturing process.
Utilizing 3D-printing ecosystems enables users to capture the complete geometry throughout the fabrication process. This captured geometry acts as a digital replica for each printed object, which can be compared to the original 3D model, allowing any discrepancies to be analyzed. This provides several benefits such as the digital replica serving as a way for the manufacturing-process technicians to easily find maximum (or average) discrepancy between the model and manufactured part. The data greatly simplifies quality assurance between designed 3D models and actual parts.
The use of a digital feedback loop in additive-manufacturing systems allows them to operate in a contactless manner—no mechanical planarization is required for other additive manufacturing systems. This simplified process allows those who utilize closed-loop machines to employ a wider range of materials than those offered by incumbent inkjet-deposition or SLA/DLP methods, which typically run off acrylates or acrylate mixtures. Since no mechanical planarization is required, users do not have to worry about materials that can jam the device, enabling companies to create products with more durable and chemically resistant materials. They also end up reducing cost-per-print, since excess material won’t be scraped off and disposed.
While open-loop feedback systems still have a place in the industry, it is clear that 3D-printing environments that feature a closed-loop system will be more beneficial in allowing a company to manufacture products at scale. The ability for a closed-loop system to analyze, learn and apply findings in real-time is a crucial capability that will drive the additive-manufacturing industry for years to come.
These systems have a plethora of benefits that will not only benefit the end user, but will yield a greater return-on-investment for the company that produces them.
Wojciech Matusik is co-founder of Inkbit