Additive manufacturing (AM) – meaning the industrial application of 3D print technologies – is undergoing a highly dynamic development worldwide. The young technology has by far outgrown prototype construction. Mechanical engineering, aviation, medical technology, and many other sectors use these flexible, toolless additive technologies for the production of serial components. Nevertheless, additive process chains are still highly fragmented. The share of manual labor is high even though the technologies are well-suited for automation, being digital at core.
Roadmap shows the way to automated manufacturing processes
Within the last months, members of the Additive Manufacturing Association within VDMA have therefore compiled a roadmap sketching out the way to automated manufacturing processes in industrial 3D print.
“In our working group Automation, we have manufacturers of AM systems, industrial users, suppliers of software and automation solutions, as well as representatives from science, all working together,” explains Rainer Gebhardt, project manager at VDMA.
"In many working group meetings, the participants have brought together the current state of the art as well as recent developments – and they have identified those technological gaps along the additive process chain which still need closing. This discussion was exceedingly open and constructive,” reports Gebhardt.
An interdisciplinary gaze on the whole AM process chain
The VDMA Roadmap addresses all data processes and physical processes along the AM process chain. This begins with data preparation, conversion, and the control of data sets, and then it moves on to the multifaceted work steps of digital production planning.
The latter begin with data import and part alignment in the installation space, then they continue with the topology of supporting structures. They also cover simulation and the definition of measurements in the process, which are variable depending on the temperature.
In the roadmap, the mere data process itself during this preparatory phase stretches up to order-related planning and control of postprocessing processes.
This excerpt of data handling alone includes 13 work steps. The roadmap also includes eleven further process steps in physical production planning, dealing among other things with quality, flow properties, and handling of employed powders. Gas compositions in the installation space are addressed as well.
For each single step, the roadmap describes the state of today’s processes, using it to sketch out the way to semi-automation, full automation, and finally integration into the fully interlinked Smart Factories of Industrie 4.0.
The roadmap keeps to this methodical approach with the actual additive manufacturing process and postprocessing of printed parts. The working group’s members have divided up the whole chain into dozens of digital and physical work steps; and they have discussed the state of the art as well as further development steps into the direction of Smart Factory.
Plans for extending the roadmap to include other materials
“When we were considering the high complexity at the beginning of our discussion, we decided to first limit ourselves to additive technologies for metals,” explains Toni Schneider, head of the working group and VDMA representative of the automation specialist Schneider Electric.
As the next step, the working group will coordinate the roadmap with the VDMA member firms, incorporating their input. The plan then is to apply the newly established methodology to other additive manufacturing technologies, especially to various plastic technologies.
“As our roadmapping process gathers perspectives and specific practical experiences of system manufacturers, industrial users, automation and software specialists as well as leading research institutes, it will give pointers on future technological development trends that are valuable for all involved,” explains Rainer Gebhardt. The players’ current practice forms the basis for all suggestions found in the roadmap.
“These references in particular as well as the extremely honest look at the current state of the art, that’s what makes this roadmap so valuable for our Association’s members and further development of additive manufacturing in general,” he says. After all, it exceeds a mere statement of vision by far.
“Our roadmap describes the specific technological ways and development steps that we need to take towards automation. Thus, it creates the foundation for a fully automated, digitally interlinked additive manufacturing in Industry 4.0,” explains Gebhardt.
Company representatives define a “Digital Component File”
Working on the Roadmap for Automation in additive manufacturing has brought together a few participants from the working group “Automation in Additive Manufacturing” in order to attend to an important detail: the definition of the “Digital Component File” as an information carrier. It includes data all along the whole process that is needed for production and that also guarantees documentation within the framework of quality control.
The Additive Manufacturing Association in the VDMA offers its members from industry and scientific research a variety of services related to industrial 3D printing technologies. We are the cross-industry platform where potential users and development partners meet and work together.