Unlocking FDM Post-Printing: An ROI Story

Thanks to its reliability, versatility, and affordability, Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) has long stood its ground as one of the most popular 3D print technologies on the market. FDM allows for a wide range of practical material options, as additives and pigmentation can easily be combined with the raw polymer prior to extrusion. To simplify the post-printing support removal process, this technique often utilizes soluble support materials.

While the benefits of FDM are often leveraged to generate fixtures and tooling, enable rapid prototyping, and test form, fit, and function for end-use, its cost-effectiveness can be limited by bottlenecks. Most often, these bottlenecks occur in the third and final step of the additive workflow: post-printing. The current industry-accepted support removal method for FDM is by way of submersion tanks, which carry a variety of limitations.

Searching for a Solution: An FDM Success Story

Like many, a manufacturer who came to PostProcess was relying on submersion tanks to finish their complex FDM part and was saddled with especially lengthy cycle times. Because it is difficult for submersion tanks to consistently reach all of the internal support structures of complex FDM geometries, results can be inconsistent. They frequently had to employ manual labor to finish the job.

Not only is this time consuming, but for this user, it was costly; especially considering that technician time could be better spent on more value-added tasks. The excessive amount of time spent cleaning parts after submersion often prevented this user from achieving their ultimate post-processing goals, or properly engaging with their customer base.

As a high-volume operation, they found the patent-pending PostProcess BASE™ solution to be best suited to their specific support removal needs. Software-driven post-printing would be instrumental in alleviating these issues to unlock the potential of their additive workflow.

Defining ROI: Our 4-Step Process
Before we delve into more of the exact savings that the BASE solution offered, let’s take a look at the considerations we take into account when calculating our ROIs. We begin by ensuring that we fully understanding a user’s current operation, including total print costs, and what portion of these costs are due to post-printing. This includes numbers like labor costs, the time spent processing each part, and the percentage of parts that come out warped or damaged. These numbers are then compared to what post-printing costs would look like with the implementation of a PostProcess solution. The result is an ROI unique to each specific operation.

The ROI Results
In this particular case, the user was processing approximately 36 parts daily. Based on the size of their parts, our BASE solution was able to fit 6 parts per cycle and decrease their cycle times by 85%. These shortened cycle times resulted in an average decrease of 2.75 hours in technician time per cycle. That frees up more than 25% of a standard workday! This resulted in a weekly saving of 14 technician hours saved per week.

With a labor rate of $40 per hour, these time savings enabled monetary savings of $26.08 per part, and $4,817 per week. Overall, our solutions unlocked a 19-week ROI. This operation has immensely benefited from implementing the BASE into their value stream. The solution’s data-driven platform stores settings to be reused at the operator’s convenience, so technicians have the ability to simply ‘press play and walk away.’ This takes focus away from support removal, and instead direct it towards more important production goals.

How it Works
Now that we’ve run through the real-life quantitative results that PostProcess solutions can achieve, let’s explore the technology behind these results and the full set of benefits it can offer.

At the heart of the BASE and its smaller counterpart, the PostProcess DECI™ solution,  is our patent-pending Volumetric Velocity Dispersion (VVD) technology. VVD employs our exclusive AUTOMAT3D™ software control to monitor energy through a network of high volume jet streams. This results in a low-pressure sweeping agitation enabling unique mechanical and chemical rates of removal, with a proprietary detergent designed especially for FDM.

  • Rapid Support Removal
    VVD’s constant support removal action allows it to achieve the fastest cycle times in the industry. Additional concentrated flex nozzles work to dissolve support material in very hard to reach internal geometries and rush it away quickly.
  • Reduced Dry Times
    Minimized exposure to chemistry reduces absorption, leading to faster dry times.
  • Consistent Results
    Our technology enables a predictable workflow for users with the ability to bundle key parameters into ‘recipes’ that ensure consistent processing. Sensor monitoring is also employed to guarantee that energy sources stay within optimal ranges.
  • Damage Mitigation
    Low-pressure agitation, refined temperature control, and limited exposure time combined with auto-dosed chemistry minimize the risk of warping fragile geometries.

Designed to overcome the bottlenecks associated with traditional submersion tanks, PostProcess’s full-stack solution combines proprietary software, hardware, and chemistry to streamline FDM workflows. Across 3 separate material types, VVD shows a 73% average decrease in cycle time compared with a standard tank solution. Digitizing your additive workflow with a software-driven solution can have a revolutionary impact on your throughputs and operating efficiencies, just like it did for this user.

Get a live, real-time review of this technology in an upcoming Live Solution Experience tour.

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

Questions 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?

As social distancing and remote work quickly become the new normal throughout the United States and 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 detrimental 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 printing and 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. By enabling lights out manufacturing, automation can perform around the clock to produce results that 8 to 10-hour shifts of manual labor could not.

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 parts 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.

To cite a real-life example, we recently held a Q&A session with The Toro Company, which has implemented our automated BASE Support Removal solution in their FDM additive manufacturing workflow. 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. The entire presentation is available for you to enjoy here.

The Risks of Outsourcing Labor

The idea of outsourcing additive parts to be finished at a sub-contractor is an alternative, but there are significant risks associated with this tactic.

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. 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. Learning more about the benefits of post-printing with PostProcess’ solutions is a good place to start, with a variety of upcoming virtual events about the benefits of automating post-printing and educational white papers to explore.

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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Mitigating Supply Chain Risk with End-to-End Automated Additive Manufacturing

When considering Additive for its speed, flexibility, and efficiency, examine how to extend these benefits through the final step of the process.

Mitigating risk within supply chains is a goal that most manufacturers work toward improving incrementally. For this issue to be brought to the top of the priority list, it usually takes a major, often crisis-inducing event. While we’re probably most accustomed to supply chain issues caused by hazardous weather events or trade disruptions caused by diplomacy, this time around, the global COVID-19 pandemic is the source of economic disruption. The volatile state of the stock market is enough to put many companies on edge right now, not to mention the innate fear that they may not be able to meet contracted deadlines. While this pandemic is inhibiting a variety of industries from operating normally, it is especially impacting supply chains as we know them across sectors like consumer goods, automotive, food and beverage, transportation, and more.

COVID-19 has already impacted hundreds of thousands of people across the globe – and numbers only continue to rise. Considering the pandemic initially broke out in the province of Wuhan in China, many western-based companies who rely on Tier 1 and Tier 2 shipments from China were immediately impacted. As a result, we can expect to keep seeing the cost of shipments from China increase on account of premiums, as well as overtime and expedited freight costs. As demands for certain products spike in the short term, stockpiling will also surely force some businesses into vulnerable positions as they struggle to retain inventory. Now that the virus has given rise to quarantines across Europe and the United States, it is beginning to even impact companies who domestically source their raw goods and labor, as well.

As the situation progresses in the west while some eastern manufacturers begin to bounce back, it is in the best interest of companies to actively analyze the implications COVID-19 is placing on their supply chains. To gain an accurate understanding of their situation and best prepare for the coming months, it is recommended that businesses perform operational risk assessments, round up data across all supply chain tiers, and create a temporary inventory recovery process. While this pandemic makes once-sound supply chains increasingly high risk and unreliable, those who utilize Additive Manufacturing within their supply chain have a little less to worry about.

Where Additive Comes In

Thanks to its on-demand nature, Additive Manufacturing provides a myriad of production benefits while lessening the commercial impact of supply chain disruptions. The ability to produce parts in-house allows for total process control and dynamic flexibility. Having a stockpile of digital designs enables on-demand production, cutting the costs of setting up and managing an initial inventory. As Supply Chain Digital reports, “The cost-benefit [of additive] goes beyond the transportation in that we eliminate the need to get rid of obsolete parts. Only parts that are demanded are produced – no obsolete parts! This is a huge win for the environment and a clear cost saving to the brand.”

Additionally, in-house additive production allows for simple customization of parts, without having to go through a variety of channels. Because 3D printing has virtually no limitations when it comes to developing complex geometries, custom parts can easily be produced en masse, in much less time than more traditional methods would allow. This ability resolves common bottlenecks that arise around more complex assemblies of specialized parts.

While in-house additive production is renowned for low costs and quick turnaround times, its ability to lessen reliance on outside suppliers is especially critical during this period of pandemic and uncertainty. So as more U.S. manufacturers proceed with swapping out overseas labor for domestic 3D printing solutions, they can expect to see faster speed-to-market of new products, quicker order fulfillment, and an increased ability to rapidly adapt their business processes in this volatile market.

Post-Printing: A Help or Hindrance Your New Additive Operation

Those new to additive will need to understand the post-printing step’s notorious reputation for slowing down workflows. As the final leg of the three-step “design, print, post-print” cycle, conventional support removal and surface finishing processes tend to require copious amounts of manual labor or utilize out-dated equipment not designed for additive. For manufacturers turning on an additive operation utilizing finite in-house resources, it is not ideal to start the endeavor using valuable engineer or technician time on laborious finishing of 3D printed parts with inconsistent final part outcomes.

To avoid these sorts of bottlenecks while maintaining supply chain efficiency, an approach that employs an automated solution is key. Letting software take the wheel in the post-printing step can help additive manufacturing reach its full promise of a digital workflow – improved efficiencies, productivity, and consistency with minimal manual labor – ultimately allowing for increased throughput for the entire operation. To truly make the most out of a switch in your supply chain to incorporate 3D printing, scalable and automated post-printing should be a critical factor in your transition plan.

Learn more here about the effects of COVID-19 on the additive manufacturing realm from Gardner Intelligence chief economist Michael Guckes and Additive Manufacturing senior editor Stephanie Hendrixson.

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