Jan 11, 2016 | By Benedict

Laser melting and 3D printing specialist Concept Laser is developing the “AM Factory of Tomorrow”, a factory building kit which will enable the modular integration of additive manufacturing technology into production environments. The kit could be available in late 2016.

Attendees of last year’s formnext powered by TCT, which took place in November in Frankfurt, Germany, might have gotten themselves a sneak preview of Concept Laser’s “AM Factory of Tomorrow”. The new machine and plant architecture, comprised of individual modules, promises a radical rethinking of how production environments can best incorporate additive manufacturing technology into their existing setups. Criticizing existing AM solutions as being wrongly focused on having “more laser sources,” “more laser power,” “faster build rates” or “expansion of the build envelope sizes,” Concept Laser is promising a new kind of modular machine architecture which can integrate seamlessly into existing environments, rather than function as a standalone process.

“It is about splitting up build job preparation/build job follow-up processing and Additive Manufacturing in any number of combinable modules,” says Dr. Florian Bechmann, Head of R&D at Concept Laser. “With comparatively large build envelopes, build jobs can be carried out with a time delay. The intention is that this should drastically reduce the “downtimes” of previous stand-alone machines. There is plenty of potential here for improving the level of added value in the production chain. In contrast to purely quantitative approaches of previous machine concepts, we see here a fundamentally new approach for advancing industrial series production one step further.”

The “AM Factory of Tomorrow” has been designed with time, space, expansion and operation constraints in mind. With the 3D printing machinery installed, production is “decoupled in machine terms” from the preparation process, allowing AM production to be carried out 24/7. This results in a higher availability of all components and a reduced workload for operators. Furthermore, the Concept Laser interface integrates laser melting machines into traditional CNC machines, which gives companies a huge advantage in producing additive/subtractive hybrid parts and in downstream processes.

With its new plant architecture, Concept Laser has attempted to “decouple” the pre-production, production and post-processing stages. Flexible machine loading and physical separation of setting-up and disarming processes contributes to this goal, whilst a consistent modular structure of handling stations and build/process units generates flexibility and increased availability. The factory building kit will also offer important additive manufacturing material solutions, such as customization of part geometry and material, as well as a potential 85% reduction in space required. Laser power per meter squared is also increased seven-fold on comparable existing solutions.

“The build rates have increased enormously thanks to the multilaser technology,” said Bechmann. “The build envelope sizes have also experienced considerable growth. We now want to use an integrated machine concept to highlight the possible ways that the approaches of ‘Industry 4.0’ can change Additive Manufacturing as the manufacturing strategy of the future. There is plenty of potential here to increase industrial added value and enhance suitability for series production.”

A key component of the “AM Factory of Tomorrow” is its process station module, which boasts a build volume of 400 x 400 x >400 mm. Laser sources, process gas management and filter technology have been integrated into the module, which can print at industry-standard resolutions and which offers a variable focus diameter. Users can opt for 1, 2 or 4 laser optics to provide security in case of the failure of one laser, with a laser power ranging from 400 - 1,000 W. “More and more laser sources only increase the expected speeds to a limited extent,” explains Bechmann. “But ultimately they also increase the level of complexity and dependencies, which can result in vulnerability, and thus turn the desired positive effect into a negative.”

The handling station module also offers a range of important features, such as an integrated sieving station and powder management, eliminating the need for transportation containers. Unpacking, preparing and sieving all take place within a self-contained system, meaning operators never come into contact with the powder, with the handling station also able to be linked to two process stations to create a “manufacturing cell”. Several handling stations can also be linked together to create a material preparation facility, physically separated from the process stations. In fact, the several types of module, which fall into the categories of “process module”, “dose module” and “overflow module”, can be linked in many ways, without the use of pipes or tubes. This is thanks to an RFID identification system incorporated into each module.

“In the future, we think that AM factories will be largely automated,” said Bechmann. “The transport of material or entire modules can be envisaged as being done by driverless transport systems. This could then be the next step in the development. Additive Manufacturing can be automated to the maximum extent.”

A 2-axis coating system gives the factory building kit an edge when it comes to post-processing. The coater blades, available in rubber, steel or carbon, can be changed automatically during the build job, which offers several advantages: “An automated tool changing system, as is the case with CNC machine technology, promises a high level of flexibility, time advantages when setting up the machine, and reduces the level of manual intervention by the operator, said Bechmann. “We deliberately talk here about ‘robust production’.”

The “AM Factory of Tomorrow” factory building kit could be available as early as late 2016.

 

 

Posted in 3D Printer Company

 

 

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