“There are no parallel offerings today.
“This is a revolution.
“This is the real deal.
“And we will remember this day.”
These were the conclusions Stratasys CEO Yoav Zeif arrived at as the company announced the launch of its F770 FDM machine, an updated version of the Origin One, and the SAF-powered H350 system, respectively. He opened a virtual press conference, featuring several Stratasys employees and customers, which would introduce each product, detail their capabilities and offer insights from end-users.
It acted as the official unveiling of what Stratasys now deems to be the best polymer 3D printing portfolio around. With products designed to produce functional prototypes in multi-colour, to machines that are best suited to manufacturing tooling components, to systems that are being targeted at mass production applications, Stratasys believes it is now has the most complete offering in the polymer space. And there is a confidence that the company will accelerate 3D printing’s maturation as a manufacturing technology.
“These new technologies will serve our further expansion and the growth of our revenues in production applications,” Andy Langfeld, Stratasys EMEA President, told TCT after the press conference. “With the historical portfolio that we had, there have been limits to the scale. Although we’re still growing the adoption of Polyjet and FDM, we recognised that it requires a new set of technologies in order to really expand again into more production grade applications with higher volumes, also entering into applications replacing injection moulding parts.”
At the forefront of this ambition is SAF technology, labelled at the press conference as one of two Stratasys technologies capable of enabling mass production applications. It has found its way into the Stratasys business via a Joint Venture with Xaar 3D, a division of Xaar in which Stratasys currently owns a 45% stake in and has the option to take full control of. The company announced last month that it would be launching a line of machines based on the technology and this week unveiled the H350 as the first in its SAF series.
SAF, or Selective Absorption Fusion, uses print heads moving left to right across the powder bed to deposit an absorbing fluid onto the powder, with an infrared lamp following quickly behind to radiate the surface and fuse particles particles. A rotating roller then pushes the next layer of powder on the top, with parts building up as the cycle repeats. Unlike other powder bed fusion platforms which utilise lasers to fuse particles together, the SAF process architecture ensures all powder particles experience the same temperature profiles and are fused at the same time. Though this slows the print speeds that SAF would be capable of, it does result in a more consistent print process, something Hopkinson has been happy to prioritise..
“There’s a small cost on speed and throughput,” Hopkinson said, “but we think that is a price that’s worth paying because if you get greater consistency, you get greater yield from your parts and the economics stack up far better by having greater consistency than perhaps by going for great speed. Consistency is the heart of it.”
Though SAF has been in development for well over a decade, in recent years, Hopkinson and his team have placed an intense focus on ironing out the inconsistencies in the process prior to its market launch. The Big Wave powder system is another aspect of that. Typically during a powder bed fusion process, the powder that gets deposited onto the top of the bed is cooler than the powder now underneath it, but Big Wave maintains a thermally stable mould of powder with overflow material being quickly recirculated to minimise thermal exposure and powder ageing.
The level of control SAF has on the thermodynamics, as well as the high recyclability of the powder, also allows users to pack parts more densely in the build volume. Parts can be positioned closer together without heating the unused powder so aggressively, and this means users can increase their throughput. It is these capabilities that persuaded Stratasys to add the technology to its portfolio, and why Zeif described it as the ‘real deal’ earlier this week, but SAF isn’t just primed for scaling production volumes, it can also negotiate fine features and large flat designs too.
“That’s something I’m particularly proud of,” Hopkinson says. “In powder bed fusion technologies, particularly when doing large flat areas, it can be challenging because the moment after you’ve heated [particles] they start to cool. And if they cool too much, particularly when they put the next layer of powder over the top, they can warp. And because the time between fusion and deposition of the next layer is the same in our system, we don’t have any areas where there’s a long time between that fusion and deposition. That instantly makes our parts less prone to the cooling that leads to this phenomenon known as curl.
“We’ve had our customers looking at [parts] just amazed that this big, flat area is being produced without any indication of lifting up, which they would expect to see,” says Hopkinson. “That’s been very gratifying for me, because it’s proof that our thermal control concept is absolutely working.”
As a result of its thermal control concept working, the company felt emboldened to come to market with a PA11 powder as its first available material. The PA11 powder is a bio-based plastic made of renewable raw materials derived from castor oil and is said to have a lower environmental impact and superior thermal resistance than PA12, while being less brittle. It has also passed ISO 10993-5 tests for cytotoxicity and UL94 HB for flammability. Additional materials, such as elastomers and engineering polymers, are being developed in partnership with third-party suppliers and will be announced when ready for use.
Being in the company for 12 years, I can only go back those 12 years, but for me, it is indeed the most exciting day.
More material options will open up application opportunities, and Hopkinson says right from the very start of the High Speed Sintering project, this has been seen as a ‘manufacturing solution.’ That has not only led Hopkinson and his colleagues to focus on consistency and throughput, but has also affected their ideas around the business model. As such, the print heads are industrial-grade and not something that they expect to be changed as a matter of routine. This reduces the cost of replacing parts, makes costs more predictable and is handy for manufacturers in industries like aerospace.
“We’ve been very conscious of this from the start, when customers are looking at doing certified manufacturing, they’ll have a configuration and the configuration includes things like having tracking of materials and what printhead is in the machine,” Hopkinson explained. “If you change those printheads, you have to reconfigure and go through a whole process all over again. And then that’s an extra cost you have to amortise in your whole manufacturing process.”
Having taken these steps, Hopkinson and Stratasys believe they are bringing to market a bona fide mass production tool. They have had this belief backed up during the machine’s beta testing in which manufacturing service providers, like Götz Maschinenbau in Germany, have deployed the H350 to produce parts in low-to-mid production volumes, accepting orders of thousands of components.
It is why Stratasys quickly positioned itself at the front of the queue to help commercialise the technology that we know now as SAF. After integrating it into the product portfolio, the company has put R&D investment in place, as it has with all incoming technologies, to power the development of printers and materials. And, with a 45% stake in Xaar 3D, it is expected Stratasys will soon take full control.
“We’re working in a joint venture mode with us taking the product to market and all other steps will be announced once finalised,” Langfeld offers. “When Xaar plc released their [financial] results, they announced advanced discussions to divest Xaar 3D or the 3D investment. That’s where we are in discussions. And when we have news, we will share it.”
While news of the H350 machine, which will ship in Q3 2021, proceeds any formal takeover of Xaar 3D, the launch of an improved Origin One platform follows an acquisition deal struck late last year. The 100 design improvements that have been made to the Origin One are the first results of this merger and include an increased build volume in the Z-axis, 10-30% faster print speeds, improved serviceability and better ergonomics. Software updates will be available to existing users via the cloud once the new Origin One starts shipping in Q4 of 2021.
“Stratasys has given the Origin team an opportunity to accelerate the roll-out of this amazing technology to truly transform manufacturing across industries from dental to industrial products,” commented Chris Prucha, VP of P3 research & development and product management at Stratasys. “In fact, it’s happening already, with positive customer feedback and very strong indications of demand.”
Already, the Origin One platform has been harnessed to print a million components and Stratasys expects these enhancements to further enable users of the technology to deploy P3 technology for mass production. TE Connectivity, who has been using 3D printing since the ’90s, cites the Origin One as a technology that has allowed it to ’embrace series production in the thousands and tens of thousands of parts’. As a company that manufactures 192 billion parts a year for a variety of sectors, it is leaning on the Origin to tackle high mix, low volume production runs. Among the applications is a connector holder designed to help connectors inside aeroplanes remain mated. This is the company’s first ever 3D printed aerospace production part, but it expects it won’t be the last.
“We have been laser-focused on meeting stringent accuracy and repeatability criteria for connectors that require double-digit micron accuracy,” commented Mark Savage, Global Center of Excellence Leader and Senior Manager of AM at TE, who said he was ‘blown away’ by P3 technology at the virtual press conference earlier this week. “Stratasys and Origin have been great partners in helping us achieve these targets and demonstrating the possibilities of using additive manufacturing at the scale of tens of thousands of parts. We believe this helps make TE Connectivity a more agile and cost-effective partner for many of the world’s leading OEMs in industries from automotive to aerospace to appliances as we work to build a more connected future.”
Rounding out Stratasys’ series of product launches was the F770 machine, featuring the longest fully heated build chamber on the market at 46 inches on the diagonal. Priced at under $100,000, the F770 is available with either ivory ASA or black ABS-M30 materials and is equipped with a 1000 x 610 x 610 mm build volume. It is suitable for the production of large jigs and fixtures, large functional prototypes and large trays of small production parts. Sub-Zero Group, a manufacturer of luxury appliances, has been a beta customer for the F770 and is said to have achieved cost savings between 30-40% when producing large parts in-house.
“As the market develops, you see a commoditisation in certain applications. And that’s where you need to offer sufficient capability for an acceptable price,” Langfeld said. “What we are enabling with this platform, is still large tools, but if you look at it from an investment perspective, from a customer point of view and also running cost, and the cost per part, it’s a game changer that is closing a gap. If you compare it to other large platforms that we have, it is not comparable on an application basis. If you take an F900, you more into industrial grade end-use parts that are certifiable, where you have repeatability. You cannot really compare it.”
These three launches come together to help represent what Stratasys has been calling the most complete polymer 3D printing portfolio available. And if the depth of the PolyJet and FDM series are anything to go by, there are to be many more SAF, P3 and RPS NEO stereolithography printers to come. The company is on a mission to ensure it can address as many challenges that manufacturers of polymer parts face as possible. It is striving to replicate the reputation it has built up in providing tools for rapid prototyping and tooling components in mass production. And that is why the company thinks the launch of these three machines is a day to remember.
“Being in the company for 12 years, I can only go back those 12 years, but for me, it is indeed the most exciting day in many aspects,” Langfeld concluded. “When you look into the strategy of the company and where we want to go, there is now the narrative of the manufacturing 2.0. But if you count to two, you need to go through one. We have been in this space where all of this was prototyping and when I started, I saw parts and I thought, who the hell is using them? And now you see parts flying on an Airbus A350, you see parts being used in live surgery, you see supply chain disruption really being addressed with additive manufacturing. [These launches], it’s transformation for us as a company, but it’s also enabling transformation of markets and how customers are producing things.”
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