Inside Automating 3D Post-Printing: 5 Questions with an Expert

Title card "5 Questions With an Expert" with Nick Cuzilo PhotoQuestions about automating your additive workflow through the post-printing step? We have answers. In our new 5 Questions with an Expert series, we sat down with one of our most seasoned Senior Application Engineers, Nick Cudzilo. Read on for some practical advice and real observations through years of experience implementing our software-driven solutions across a range of business types and print technologies.

From your personal interactions while working with additive manufacturing operators, what are some of the most significant benefits that customers have expressed they’ve gained from AM overall?

There are so many benefits, and those, of course, can differ based on industry and application. Additive manufacturing really enables the ability to mass customize parts, with the medical industry probably being the most applicable example. Think about fitting a patient with a prosthetic or designing an implant or dental arch. With additive, we have the ability to customize these really specific parts on a mass scale. Especially in medical applications when it’s about saving and improving lives, that’s a complete game-changer. By eliminating the need for one-off molds and reducing the complexity of supply chains, you’re getting a custom product turned around very quickly and at a much lower cost.

Compared to traditional manufacturing, additive also provides increased accessibility to automation, which directly results in cost savings. Plus, 3D printing is pretty seamless to implement, so it allows companies to enjoy a bit more control over their inventory by moving outsourced manufacturing to an in-house function. Those benefits especially come into play when you’re talking about rapid prototyping for sectors like consumer goods and even aerospace.

On the flip side, what are some things that customers have said they wished that they had known about before implementing an additive process?

I talk to a lot of customers within the 3D printing realm, and more than anything, I’ve heard people say that they wish they knew how much manual labor is still involved in the post-printing step of additive manufacturing. 3D printer OEMs are great at describing the benefits of 3D printing itself, but don’t always disclose the manual work that is involved in the rest of the process. We often refer to that post-print bottleneck as the “black sheep” or “dirty little secret” of the additive workflow – and that’s exactly the area where the software-driven solutions that we supply at PostProcess are able to help.

Before installing our automated post-printing solutions, what are some of the most common complaints you’ve heard about manual or more traditional post-printing processes?

Right off the bat, I can say that the manual labor is the number one complaint, as well as the time and cost associated with it. Once a company has implemented our solutions, they are able to significantly reduce manual labor and redirect skilled labor to more valuable tasks.

The harsh chemicals necessary for more traditional support removal methods are also problematic. The sheer volume of chemicals needed for large submersion tanks is pretty immense. Not only does this create an additional cost factor for a lot of businesses, but it can make waste disposal tricky as well. The exclusive technology in our machines utilizes our chemistry more efficiently, increasing the longevity of detergents. This is better for both businesses and the environment.

That brings us to the other common issue – workplace environments. Traditional surface finishing and support removal creates a lot of potentially toxic residue, like metal and nylon powders. I’ve seen a lot of labs totally covered in plastic dust from hand-sanding and workers having to go to extensive lengths to protect themselves from harsh chemicals. One of the most rewarding things about bringing our post-printing solutions into workplaces is getting to help people enjoy healthier working environments.

Can you give me an example of a case where our post-printing solutions really revolutionized or dramatically improved an additive workflow?

I’d say that 3D printing service bureaus are where I’ve noticed the greatest impact. These companies are printing all day, every day, and are expected to deliver virtually perfect, finished products back to the end-user. Service bureau employees are constantly exposed to harsh chemicals and work in particularly harsh environments.

The solutions that we offer to these organizations provide the ability to automate their process, enabling not only a complete digital thread but the ability to significantly scale their manufacturing, too. To come back to the wording of your question, in order to revolutionize a workflow, you can’t just scale up one portion and expect a change. You need to scale the entire process – including your post-printing workflow.

What advice would you give to someone looking to implement additive manufacturing for the first time?

The piece of advice that immediately comes to mind is to talk to more than one person before you make a purchase. Specifically, talk to someone other than just the person who is selling you the 3D printer. Ensure that you’ve spoken with people who know about the full process both on the software and design side, but primarily on the post-print side. Most people are unaware of the scale of what it takes to run an effective post-printing operation, so talking to an expert (like someone from PostProcess) will help you fully understand the requirements around post-printing.


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Why Automate Now?

Today’s environment is requiring companies to take a good hard look at how they can achieve cost and time savings as well as shorten and de-risk their supply chains. When it comes to additive manufacturing, automating the post-print step is possibly the best place to start.

Person pressing a button on Post-Processing Automated SolutionAs social distancing and remote work quickly become the new normal throughout most of the world, the downsides of relying on manual labor are at the forefront. It’s very like that you are evaluating your manufacturing strategy in the midst of COVID-19, as social distancing efforts can, unfortunately, be more negatively impactful to companies reliant on manual labor.

With all of the precariousness currently being posed by reduced workforces, the topic of conversation as of late is how certain manufacturing strategies can take hands-on labor out of the equation. That’s where automated 3D post-printing solutions come in.

The Shortcomings of Manual Labor

Even when operations are running normally, there are some key considerations of using manual labor for tasks like manufacturing or finishing parts. By the time that management, benefits, and fair salaries are taken into account, it’s obvious that maintaining a manual workforce is an expensive and time-consuming endeavor. Compared to automated alternatives, room for inconsistencies and human error abound with manual labor. Regardless of training and expertise, it’s virtually impossible for two people to perform the same task in the exact same manner. As a result, variability in output is always a risk factor. Software-driven automation in manufacturing counters this in exactness and high efficiencies, as automated workflows are renowned for consistency and increased throughput. 

While at this time you may be working to reduce individuals from your operation, in more normal circumstances, automation can quite directly enable a manual workforce to be more efficient. This is particularly relevant when it comes to finishing 3D printed parts. Usually, this is an intensive job that involves hours of soaking, picking, or sanding. In place of spending time on these laborious tasks, workers can instead devote their working hours to more value-adding duties. Two recent Case Studies on SLA and DLP Resin Removal outline this exact scenario for US-based Empire Group and Swedish design firm Splitvision.

White FDM 3D printed parts, one before post-processing with brown support material and one after post-processing without brown support material.To cite another real-life example, we recently held a Q&A session with The Toro Company which has implemented the automated BASE Support Removal solution for FDM. Support removal was previously the company’s largest contributor to workflow bottlenecks, as it accounted for 25% of each part’s cost and took twice the length of the 3D printing build time. Product Development Lab Supervisor Rob McArdell noted that the software-driven BASE solution has enabled ~90% decreases in both post-print process times and operator labor.

McArdell said, “With the BASE’s software control over temperature, pressure, agitation, and duration, our additive technician no longer needs to give much thought to support removal…He just pushes the right number for the correlating program, presses ‘start’, and walks away.” Automated post-printing has enabled Toro to drive bottom-line growth by allocating time to more valuable tasks and achieve timelines and projects that would’ve never before been feasible. To learn about the technology behind these dramatic results, check out this Automated FDM Support Removal White Paper or watch the Q&A Webinar Presentation with The Toro Company that was previously recorded.

The Risks of Outsourcing Labor

The idea of outsourcing additive manufactured parts to be finished at a sub-contractor is an alternative, but consideration of the risks associated with this tactic is a prudent step.

Outsourcing labor always falls short compared to the total process control enabled by in-house. By pinning one’s faith in a subcontractor, you’re resigning all quality control and risk management that you would otherwise have a say in. Additionally, every sub-contracting project, no matter how big or small, carries immense legal liability that can only be mitigated with an effective subcontractor agreement. If these legal doctrines are not iron-clad, they can pose immense opportunities for loopholes and excessive charges. Any change order or request outside of the Scope of Work carries the potential for delays, significant cost increases, and in the worst-case scenarios, lawsuits.

Even with an all-encompassing agreement, the cost and efficiency of subcontracting still play a negative factor compared to completing work in-house. Subcontracting is often unnecessarily costly, and excess time for things like shipping and back-and-forth communication must be allotted for.

Enabling Lights Out Manufacturing with Additive

While the “print” step of 3D printing is automated in nature, without technology like PostProcess’ software-driven solutions, post-printing can still be heavily reliant on manual labor. And as shown in our 2020 Annual Additive Post-Printing Trends Report, the use of manual labor is a growing concern for the industry across the board. A fully digitized additive manufacturing workflow enables a true lights-out operation, keeping costs low, efficiencies high, and production going 24/7. If fully automating is not possible right now, there are still steps you can take to make progress towards that goal. 

Bringing automated solutions into your manufacturing process will enable you to be more self-reliant in future supply chain disruptions as well. While it’s not often that we undergo a worldwide quarantine, supply chains, especially those that span internationally, are much more susceptible to disruptions. Digitized additive manufacturing workflows, while especially crucial to implement now, will never stop being advantageous.

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