What does openness in a 3D printing platform really mean, and why is it important? This post outlines the core elements of the Open Additive™ approach to metal additive manufacturing:
The difference between “open architecture” and “closed architecture” has a major impact on the role of the user. By definition, closed architecture implies users cannot modify original equipment, and generally face warranty or other limitations hindering the integration of add-on technologies. These limitations hinder the creative freedom of users to enhance system capabilities for their individual needs. In particular, these limitations impact businesses, research institutes, government labs, and universities that perform R&D, and seek to disseminate or commercialize the results of such work.
In contrast, truly open-architecture systems allow more freedom to modify, develop, and/or integrate hardware or software components. Ideally, the platform should be designed with openness in mind from the outset, with adequate physical space, available information about the configuration, and ability to access system data. In this way, an open-architecture system becomes a tool for more than just making parts, but also for making advances in the industry. An imperfect but useful analogy is the smart phone. It became a powerful platform by making it easy for developers to access system data to create apps, which could be easily disseminated across the user community. Likewise, users of open AM systems may act as developers, too. With freedom to innovate, add-on technologies can be disseminated across the user community, and even sold independently or in collaboration with the machine manufacturer.
An open-architecture system becomes a tool for more than just making parts, but also for making advances in the industry.
Open architecture impacts more than just R&D. It also enables producers, from major suppliers to the small machine shop, the opportunity to modify their systems as needs evolve. Risk of obsolescence decreases and a wider range of future applications may be supported. This may spur organizations to commit to getting in the game sooner, knowing they won’t be locked into existing capabilities. Thus, open-architecture systems can reduce barriers to entry in metal AM. This openness does not imply that a system is not turnkey – i.e., ready to go without modification. An open-architecture system can and should be configured out of the box and include relevant technical data to make quality parts.
Few systems advertised as “open architecture” really provide such freedom in practice, and generally use “open architecture” to mean “open materials or parameters” which is not an open architecture. But Open Additive systems really are open architecture. Users can integrate their own proprietary technology, and the Open Additive team can assist in providing technical data on our components or access to data from these components. Our warranty permits such activity, so long as individual components are used in accordance with their individual manuals. This approach accelerates the innovation cycle by allowing greater participation from the user community.
Closely related to the idea of open architecture is an “open configuration” platform. Open configuration refers to the flexibility of the system to be configured or reconfigured based on project or application needs. This reconfiguration could be accomplished by the machine manufacturer (ideal for more complicated tasks), or the user, a third party, or combination thereof depending on the complexity. It can occur prior to or after sale.
For laser powder bed systems, project/application needs may require deviation from standard configurations to meet research, training, or production needs. Some of the components that could be varied in an open configuration platform include:
Laser(s) – laser power, type, wavelength, and quantity
Optics – scan head, f theta lens, in-line optics
Build plate – material, size, heating
Powder deposition – spreader/roller design, blade stiffness
Cross bed flow – directional control, flow rate
Sensors – types, positioning, mounts
To date, most metal AM system manufacturers have offered standard configurations marketed and sold as individual model numbers, with limited opportunity to make significant configuration changes before or after sale. Open Additive systems are different. Our PANDA™ system provides a wide range of configuration options, many of which could be integrated post-installation. For the R&D community, this is especially advantageous, as new capabilities can be priced into proposals and added later if funded.
A basic prerequisite for an open platform is the ability to use feedstock of choice. An open platform should place no restrictions on materials or sources, other than conformance to any minimal specifications to ensure machine operability. Users should not be limited to buying feedstock through the machine manufacturer, or be subject to machine manufacturer’s approval for material types or sources. Users are encouraged to consult the machine manufacturer for guidance (not approval) on using any unusual materials that could be foreseen to cause issues.
The benefits of open materials are obvious. Users are not beholden to the system manufacturer for their feedstock, and thus free to use materials of choice to meet their customer needs and project budgets. For the metal AM industry, the number of suppliers and available powders has increased dramatically over recent years, allowing more options from which to select based on composition, price, quality, and delivery time. As these options can be overwhelming, most machine manufacturers, even with open materials, still typically offer branded materials with supporting technical data, to allow users a baseline choice for their common powder needs.
Open Additive systems place no restrictions on materials or sources. No restrictions does not mean no data, however. We are working with a growing number of powder suppliers to develop processing parameters and supporting technical data for their powders, which we will make available to our users. Users are of course free to use any material of choice and develop their own parameters, which leads us to the next element.
An open platform implies that users have the capability to dial in their own processing parameters. This is important to allow users freedom to conduct their R&D, understand effects of parameters for education, and create competitive advantages for production applications. Open parameters is more than just being able to dial in your own settings, however. It is also having insights into the preset settings for any pre-loaded materials recipes. These insights are especially important to enable fundamental and applied research, and make comparative studies for process optimization.
Open Additive provides vast freedom to manipulate the laser additive process, well beyond what other manufacturers would consider open parameters. Using proven software originally developed for the laser marking industry and expanded as a commercial package for additive, users can modify typical settings such as laser power, scan speed, scan strategy, etc. Moreover, users can select from a large number of preset hatch patterns, or even create their own. You can select multiple hatch patterns each layer, and also separate hatch versus contour parameters, all of which can be set individually for any layer or combination of layers you choose. Advanced features include the ability to wobble the laser in fully customizable patterns to affect melt pool. In total, the result is true tool path control over the process.
Open Additive’s Open Machine Control™ software comes included with perpetual license. It runs on included Windows 10 workstation, performs slicing, and can add supports. The software is not limited to .stl model inputs, but allows .step, .igs, and more. We are also soon to rollout a plug-in to import .cli/.sli files from third-party software. Users have capability to create their own plug-ins, or work with our team to add upgrades. While it may sound daunting, the software is intuitive and Windows menu based. Users are ready to perform builds on their own after a one-day orientation. The openness of the software does not mean it is ill suited for production. The software allows ability to restrict user control – for example, a technician could be able to load process recipes but not alter them.
Effective process monitoring is becoming a growing need for quality control of metal AM processes. System manufacturers increasingly offer one or more sensors to monitor the build process, as either standard features, available options, or third-party add ons. An open platform should not restrict the integration of third-party sensors for process monitoring. Moreover, it should provide the actual raw data output from any integrated sensors. This raw data allows users to retain and analyze (as desired) the sensor data. This is particularly important for R&D and process optimization studies. It will become even more important in the future as OEMs and higher tier suppliers begin to assess in situ data from their suppliers as part of quality assurance programs.
Open Additive systems place no restrictions on integration of third-party sensors and provide all raw data for integrated sensors. Our optional multi-sensor data collection suite (AMSENSE®) provides layer-by-layer data for R&D and process development, through a simple-to-use graphical interface. Sensing/analysis modules are in development and will be incrementally deployed as ready. Users have access to all raw and processed data, synchronized by layer. Users can input these raw data files into their own software tools (such as MATLAB and Excel) to create their own analysis techniques, which can be then run and shared through the plug-in interface.
An open platform should be designed for easy maintenance, and empower rather than shackle users from keeping their own system up and running. Users should have the option to make their own minor repairs and replacements without being beholden to the system manufacturer or a manufacturer-approved service provider. Users shouldn’t have to pay exorbitant fees for technical support to operate the system they already paid a substantial sum to acquire.
Open Additive systems include such an open maintenance philosophy. System acquisition costs include first-year full warranty and service visits, providing peace of mind to users and the opportunity to walk them through basic maintenance actions during visits. Instructions are provided for these basic maintenance actions, and customers have the freedom to perform minor operations as they see fit. Consumables are inexpensive and generally readily available. We can provide vendor information for any consumables (e.g., filters) or failure items so users have the option to acquire directly if they wish. Email and telephone technical support is available at any time. Warranty remains in effect so long as users do not use components in a manner that violates their operating manuals.
The impact of this open maintenance approach is significant. It can be the difference between being down substantial time waiting on a service technician visit and getting a system back operational same day or next. We do provide extended service plans, but expect many users will become comfortable keeping their system operating on their own after our first year working with them.
Together, these elements reduce the barriers and expand the possibilities in metal AM. They are meant to be enabling without leaving users out in the cold. We’d like to hear your thoughts on how Open Additive can better serve the metal AM community. Please send a note to firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks!