Top 5 Considerations for 3D Printed Metal Surface Finishing

3D Printed MetalMetal additive manufacturing is on the rise. The most recent numbers show that over 50% of service providers are producing some level of metals parts, and almost 25% are producing metal exclusively. However, metals have more challenges when it comes to meeting the final surface finish specifications. Almost one-third (32.8%) of the total part cost is attributed to post-processing (2018 Wohlers Report). For most, this includes significant time and labor to meet various surface finish requirements. To mitigate these costs, there are some key factors to think through along the way. We have identified 5 considerations below in question format to create an actionable list.

Print Technology – What print technology best supports my criteria?
Whether starting a design from scratch or migrating a traditionally manufactured component to additive, there is more to consider than just build tray size and speed of print. It is critical to understand which metals are available and tested for different print technologies. Material properties such as density, hardness, and grain structure and size are important in determining the optimal print technology and subsequent surface finishing solution. For example, a powder bed technology like Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DMLS) can provide initial Ra values between 200 µin to 400 µin, while Electron Beam Melting (EBM) produces much rougher parts closer to 1000 µin, yet typically results in lower residual stresses. However, EBM only offers titanium, cobalt chrome, and limited nickel alloys, while DMLS offers additional aluminum alloys, Inconel, and stainless steel options. Some designs call for strength and only require light smoothing, some prioritize appearance requirements like polished finishes, while others require precise specifications related to dimensions and surface characteristics in industries like medical and aerospace.
– What to do? Outline print technologies and capabilities, including material availability, with consideration for final surface finish requirements.

Design – Is the part designed for metal printing?
Whether the material is being sintered, melted, or deposited, it is safe to assume that there will be a ‘gross’ surface finishing operation for most metal printed parts. This means most applications will involve a process to smooth and/or deburr all external surfaces, even if machining or other secondary processes are taking place. During this initial surface smoothing process, depending on material there can be a loss of material up to .005”. This can be more extreme at sharp corners. Consequently, there should be a consideration during the design process to factor in some loss of material on all external surfaces. Equally important in the design phase is to think about complexity. Although it is desirable to push the boundaries and create a massive assembly in one build, consider how it may limit the access to surfaces and potentially trap material that ultimately needs to be removed, including powder.
– What to do? Start with individual components to understand how the material particle size and print resolution impact external surfaces. Then determine what geometries may need to be built up to compensate for the initial surface finish process. Nail this then increase complexity.

Geometry – What are the critical surfaces and where are they?
This may seem obvious, but this is often overlooked. More importantly, it should be a starting place that drives your process, not something that is thought about only after the part is printed. These criteria should be objective and measurable. For instance, what is your target roughness average, or Ra? Knowing this will help you work backward and identify a reasonable target Ra from the printer, and start setting expectations for the material Rate of Removal (RoR) during the finishing stage. That’s the ‘what’, but in additive manufacturing of metals, the ‘where’ often presents more of a challenge. Vibratory systems can work well on external surfaces but struggle to address small or complex internal surfaces. Therefore the most common challenges are internal channels, especially in metals because they typically need to meet testing specifications such as flow rate. Similar to this example, the internal surface needed to be ‘reached’ through other means. In some cases, it may be important that the treatment of the internal surface does not over-process or damage surrounding surfaces. This would require capabilities of targeting specific geometries or features.
– What to do? Identify your surface finish criteria before printing: what (Ra) and where (critical geometries and locations).

Support Structures and Build Orientation – How do support structures affect the build?
Most metal printing technologies, especially the powder bed variety, require support structures even on flat surfaces to act as a heat sink. During print, vertical print surfaces can have a roughness average at least 50% higher compared to horizontal surfaces. Depending on geometry, some parts can be printed at an angle to balance the layer stepping and provide a more uniform surface finish across the build. Because support structures are the same material as the build in metal printing, it is important to think through the placement of these supports because those areas will require additional attention during surface finishing.
– What to do? Simulate support structure designs for 3 different builds of the same part: default, rotated 90 degrees and another oriented at a 30° angle. This will provide guidance for optimizing support structure placement and layering of critical geometries.

Scalability – Is the surface finishing process as repeatable as the print?
When it comes to the actual process of surface finishing metals, many begin by relying on hand tools and equipment already present at their facility. Not only can this be unsafe, i.e. grinding near titanium powders can create an explosion hazard, but this can also quickly become a workflow issue.
Inconsistency – even if the perfect finish is produced once, can it be produced again? Scrapping parts can be quite costly, especially in metal printing.
Throughput – at what pace do parts need to be finished to justify the business case for printing? This is more critical with metals since there is more likely to be a comparison to an existing process with traditional manufacturing.
Productivity – if volume increases, is the surface finishing process still justifiable with existing resources (i.e. labor and tools)? This often results in printing less because surface finishing becomes a bottleneck.
The goal for most is to achieve consistent results while minimizing the time a technician needs to spend handling a single part. There are different technologies to monitor key process parameters and manage energy to match the sophistication of metal 3D printing.
– What to do? Begin with the end in mind. Research surface finishing technologies that can leverage the data and automation of 3D printing metal to balance and scale the entire workflow.

Printed metals bring additional challenges to the surface finishing of additive parts: tighter tolerances, additional support structure considerations, and even new safety hazards. Thus it is more important to think about surface finishing at each step of the workflow. New technology might mean re-thinking the same problem from a new perspective. From design to preparing the final surface for the customer, there is no one technology that fits all applications. This can take some testing and experimentation, but if the above considerations are taken into account it should make for a much smoother adoption of additively manufactured metals.

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2018 – A Year in Review

2018 was quite the year! Take a look back at the efforts making automated, intelligent post-printing a reality this past year at PostProcess:


  • February PostProcess Automates 3D Post-Printing at Johns Hopkins – The Johns Hopkins University’s Carnegie Center for Surgical Innovation implements the PostProcess CENTI solution to remove support material from Polyjet parts. Using 3D printing to put patient-specific organ models into the hands of surgeons, the Johns Hopkins facility has significantly decreased their overall cycle time and improved consistency with the PostProcess solution. Read the full press release here.
  • May  – PostProcess Announces Expanded Channel Partner Coverage Across North America – PostProcess secured agreements with AdvancedTek, Cimetrix, Fisher Unitech, and Tech-Labs to accelerate growth for post-print solutions in North America. Learn more about why these specific channel partners were selected.
  • September Hybrid DECI Duo Recognized with 2 Innovation Awards – PostProcess became a Top 3 Finalist for the RAPID+TCT Exhibitor Innovation Award and was the recipient of a Bronze Medal at the American Business Awards in the B2B New Product Innovations Category. Read more about these along with other industry recognition that PostProcess have received in 2018.
  • September – 3D Printed Metal for Ingersoll Rand Achieves Aerospace Quality Surface Finishing – Ingersoll Rand requires a replicable way to achieve exacting surface finish requirements on the complex geometry of its shrouded impeller to drive a measurable increase in efficiency for its advanced air compressors. Learn how PostProcess solved this dilemma with the Hybrid DECI Duo in this customer case study.
  • October  PostProcess Launches in Europe – Automated post-printing becomes available across EU with PostProcess’ first international office and the launch of its product line in Europe. Read the full press announcement here.
  • November –  PostProcess and Rösler Announce Partnership to Bring Automated, Intelligent Post-Printing to Europe – Following the opening of the first international office, PostProcess and Rösler announce a European partnership  that brings expertise in finishing systems with a broad European footprint, thousands of existing customers, and a strong presence across a range of industries that will greatly benefit from PostProcess’ proprietary and integrated software, hardware, and chemistry solution. Learn how this partnership will enable end-to-end digitization of 3D printing for Industry 4.0 factory floor.
  • December – PostProcess Accelerates Next-Gen Post-Print Software Platforms with CUBRC – This new partnership significantly advances PostProcess’ work on the full digitization of AM through the post-print step for the Industry 4.0 factory floor. Read the full press release here.


PostProcess published many White Papers throughout the year on support removal and surface finishing over a range of 3D print technologies. Check out the White Paper database to learn more!

As your print volumes grow and end-part quality requirements increase, be sure to plan for your 2019 budget to include automated and intelligent post-printing solutions! Contact us today to get started.


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PostProcess & CUBRC. A match made in missions.

CUBRCToday we announced our partnership with CUBRC, a leader in machine learning research, development, testing, and systems integration, to leverage their cutting-edge Heartwood Analytics™ suite for our next-generation 3D post-printing software platforms. You can read the full press release here.

We’re proud to be working with a hometown, Buffalo-based organization and trusted leader in delivering innovation in data science and information fusion technologies. CUBRC’s mission to “turn great ideas into advantage through technology” pairs perfectly with PostProcess’ mission. We aim to deliver advantage by helping customers streamline and optimize their post-printing to harness the full potential of Additive Manufacturing. PostProcess and CUBRC’s shared passion for the power of data and our matching missions are a great foundation for the start of an exciting partnership.

So today, in the spirit of celebrating what is to come in our next-generation software platforms, we want to recap some of our most interesting prior posts on software in case you missed them:

The Power of Tail Wagging: How the third step in Additive Manufacturing may unlock Manufacturing 4.0
Digitizing 3D Post-Printing – Why the Market Can’t Scale Without It
How It Works… Software-Driven 3D Post-Printing with AUTOMAT3D™
You Use Software and Data Upstream…But Not at the Finish Line?

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To FoolProof or FutureProof? That is the Question.

Additive Manufacturing ROIAs we pack our bags over the next few days and head off to Formnext, one of the world’s leading events for additive manufacturing, we wanted to share some thoughts to keep with you as you peruse the next generation of intelligent industrial production at the show.

As you are scanning the exhibition in need of a solution for better support structure removal and better surface finishing for your additive manufacturing program…do you invest in advanced technology that works today – or wait to see how technology evolves in the future? There’s the rub as they say.

The good news is you don’t have to choose.

The initial PostProcess solutions were designed for an end-state that doesn’t yet exist. When we recognized that the world wasn’t quite caught up, we backed up to create solutions that add enormous value in today’s paradigm – while we wait for the world to evolve to our original starting place. In essence, it was the ultimate future-proofing strategy.

Start like we did: envision the state of additive manufacturing several years from now. You can expect to see a proliferation of software that automatically creates the optimal part design (prototype software is already on display on tradeshow floors). What goes into that? Yes, of course, part geometries, structural properties, 3D printer technology and materials and more. But another critical consideration is the requirements for finishing the part – both through the removal of support materials (whether powder or structural) or the surface finishing. Insight into those finishing steps needs to be fed into the software design programs – which means digitized post-processing is needed.

The challenge with making this vision manifest today is that solutions do not exist that can execute to this standard. And many companies in the additive space have their hands full addressing today’s challenges: high quality, replicable post processing to enable a scalable solution for customer-ready parts.

That’s when we went beyond building for the future – and built the bridge from today’s requirements (and capabilities) to that future. This led us to launch the first and only automated solutions for post print support removal and surface finishing. Automated post printing is, in essence, the bridge to the digitized post-printing that will be dominant tomorrow. The good news is that, with PostProcess, you’re at the forefront of both. Whether you seek to understand a step-change in your post printing results today – or are scaling for Industry 4.0, or both – PostProcess can help you understand the evolving landscape.

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How ROI and Payback Analysis Accelerates Additive Manufacturing Capital Expense Approvals

Additive Manufacturing ROIOften in business, the question isn’t what you should be doing, but rather what you can get approval to do. Your rich study of new technology and advancements in your chosen discipline is often out of alignment with corporate expense objectives. Nowhere is this truer than when it comes to capital expenditure for equipment purchases – like in your additive lab or factory.

Too often we see forward-thinking engineers and technicians, eager to introduce technology that achieves key business objectives, stymied by capital approvals. This is even truer when introducing progressive technology for which there is no existing line item in the budget. The automation of additive post-printing falls squarely into this camp.

Technicians and engineers want the solution for the unparalleled consistency of the results. With overall innovation in additive accelerating, there is increasing complexity in part geometries, print materials and 3D printer technologies. And, it comes hand in glove with higher expectations for quality, including fine detail protection, internal channels finishing, and processing of large-scale parts. But somehow, those expectations don’t translate to the expense line of the budget held by the CFO.

What to do? Speak in their language. Don’t talk to your finance team about your challenges (or even the solution) – speak in terms of ROI and Investment Payback Period. (Hint: we can help.)

The good news: you’re not the first one to run into this. The better news: we’ve now worked with dozens of companies to help frame the opportunity to their finance teams. A word on both Payback Period and ROI, and how to proceed:

Regarding Payback Period calculations, all other things being equal, finance types consider investments that pay for themselves in a shorter time period as preferable. The key to a payback analysis is the measure of time. Payback period is the time it takes for the “cumulative returns” to equal the “cumulative costs” – in other words, payback period the break-even point in time. Once you cross the break-even point, all subsequent operations (e.g., of an automated post printing solution) actually adds to the value of the company. PostProcess has an automated system that can help you evaluate data like this for your company – and help you package it for internal presentation.

Note, while “time” is the classic measure of payback period, some analysts also look at break-even (or payback) in terms of unit production. We’ve got your back: our tools can calculate that too.

Return on Investment (or ROI) is a measurement of the consequence of the investment (in this case, the investment into an automated post printing solution). The ROI is a ratio, or percentage, comparing net gains to net costs. It provides a direct, easily understood measure of the investment’s profitability – and lets the finance (or purchasing) team quickly compare the magnitude and timing of expected gains with the scale and timing of costs.

The PostProcess ROI Calculator provides a comprehensive view of your system that goes well beyond the cost of purchasing an automated post print solution. It considers your average labor cost, material usage, part breakage in your manual and traditional finishing approaches and more. In other words, it’s a comprehensive view of expense – which suddenly has you speaking “their” language when talking to finance.

Most of our customers have a payback period of weeks (so months, not years). Let us show you your ROI and payback perod. Contact us today.

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The Power of Tail Wagging: How the third step in Additive Manufacturing may unlock Manufacturing 4.0

Additive Manufacturing 4.0They say study the past to know the future. In the migration from subtractive manufacturing to additive, we may be following the existing paradigm too closely.

Both subtractive and additive manufacturing span a three-step process: part design, part build and the post-processing of the part to make it viable or customer ready. There is a commonality to approach across the three steps in both subtractive and additive. Parts are designed using CAD systems. Those digital files are used to drive the build approach — to design tooling for a traditional (e.g., injection molding) build or to drive the printer in an additive build. Then, regardless of subtractive or additive, manual or mechanical solutions are generally used for post-processing. And that’s a bridge too far.

The power of industry 4.0 rests not with the automation of individual steps in a process. That’s important – but the true power rests in the connective interplay across systems. In manufacturing 4.0, it is not just the gathering of data that is important; it is the connecting of data across smart systems that is transformative. Connected data shifts the factory floor from “merely” better-informed technicians reacting to fresh data (the current step change) to better-informed machines making anticipatory changes based on data long before a technician gets involved. And that’s where additive manufacturing has the opportunity to not just radically distance itself from subtractive – but to also lead the 4.0 revolution.

Today, in both subtractive and additive, the first two steps (design and build) share a common digital thread. CAD files used in design help drive the manufacturing solutions (whether traditional or 3D printers) to build the part. In both cases, the digital thread snaps at post-processing. In subtractive, that’s state of the art. In additive, it’s the tip of the iceberg. The additive opportunity comes alive with the digitization of the third and final step.

Picture this: when you automate the third step you enjoy three immediate benefits. First, unparalleled consistency in the removal of supports and surface finishing on the thin walls, complex geometries, internal channels and fine feature detail unique to 3D printing. Second, faster throughput in processing these complex parts. And third, increased productivity underpinning a rapid ROI on automated post-processing solutions. There are important ancillary benefits as well, from radical reductions in technician attendance time to replicable processing.

But beyond automating – digitizing – the third step transforms the entirety of additive manufacturing. It creates an end-to-end solution in which the digital files used in design and build now feed the automation in the third and final step, post-processing. Moreover, it creates a closed-loop solution in which data from post-processing can be used to feed design and build iterations in real time. Learn about our PostProcess CONNECT3D software platform in development that leverages existing CAD formats and can propel your additive system closer to 4.0 standards. Additive may just drive the first lights-out transition your company is looking for.

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How to make Support Removal for PolyJet SUP 705 as easy as 706

3D print 706 705There’s a common misconception that PolyJet Support Material 705 is much more difficult to remove during post-processing than SUP 706.

This may be true when using legacy methods such as water jets, soak baths, or manual labor. The SUP 705 material adheres to the part more firmly, so when applying intense force with these legacy methods, you can easily lop off fragile portions of a print as well as the support material. However, 706 is not without its post-processing challenges as well; you run the risk of being overly aggressive with the softer 706 material and damaging the part or experiencing warping and part absorption by over-saturating them.

In truth, SUP 705 can be just as easily removed as SUP 706 with a different approach – the PostProcess approach integrating software, hardware, and chemistry into a single solution.

Utilizing a data-driven, software-forward solution gives the operator precision control, including the ability to vary parameters such as temperature and agitation level to accommodate the firmer SUP 705 or softer SUP 706. The recipe program feature eliminates trial and error resulting in scrapped parts or inconsistent results – you get the desired finish every time at the touch of a button with the ability to save and recall multiple recipes for your ideal SUP 705 and 706 process parameters.

Our thoughtfully designed hardware platform utilizes agitated flow to effectively remove supports with a ‘sink-float’ process to rotate parts throughout the chamber. This variable motion, combined with optimal energy delivery via ultrasonics, results in fast and uniform hands-free support removal for both SUP 705 and 706. With the motion of fluids within the machine controlled by software, sensor data adjusts in real-time so that parts are not damaged and removal of supports is consistent, regardless of which material.

Designed specifically for PolyJet supports, our PolyGone chemistry targets removal of support material, leaving build material in perfect condition. Whether for SUP 705 or 706, the same patent-pending PolyGone consumable does the job. Because our chemistries are already mixed, there is no chance of incorrectly mixing a batch, as compared to other offerings which must often be mixed on-site. PolyGone utilizes low concentrations of several conventional chemicals in unique combinations, resulting in safe and effective support removal for SUP 705 and 706 in one bottle.

So the next time you sigh at the prospect of removing support on your SUP 705 PolyJet print, remember that there’s a solution that helps you effectively manage both support removal jobs in one system, ensuring unparalleled consistency and unlimited throughput for your PolyJet operation.

To learn more –
– Check out our DEMI support removal solution
– Read our recent White Papers on PolyJet support removal

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