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The 6 Elements of an Open 3D Printing Platform

What does openness in a 3D printing platform mean, and why is it important? This article outlines the core elements of the OpenAdditive™ approach to metal additive manufacturing:

  1. Open Architecture

  2. Open Configuration

  3. Open Materials

  4. Open Parameters

  5. Open Sensing

  6. Open Maintenance


Open Architecture


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. A closed architecture can also limit the platform’s potential as a training or education tool.


In contrast, 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, but OpenAdditive systems do. CAD models for 3D printed components are available to allow users to easily make system modifications as needed. Users can integrate their own proprietary technology, and the OpenAdditive 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.


Open Configuration


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. OpenAdditive systems are different. They are not marketed as set model numbers, but as size classes with standard configurations that can be tailored. For example, we’ve delivered our PANDA system with laser power from 300W to 1000W, have integrated visible band lasers and subtractive pulsed lasers, and configured it for dual-laser research. We can also reconfigure the optics to change spot size and add beam-shaping capability. These changes are not overly expensive and can be incorporated pre- or post-install. For the R&D community, this is especially advantageous, as new capabilities can be priced into proposals and added later if funded. The system is also designed so that it is easy for users to modify the spreader, cross bed flow, and sensor mounts as needed.


Open Materials


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.


OpenAdditive 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 freely available to our users. As part of these powder studies, we also plan to offer branded materials as an option with our systems in the near future. Technical data will include powder specifications, processing parameters, and resulting material properties, for high-demand and specialty materials. Users are of course free to use any material of choice and develop their own parameters, which leads us to the next element.


Open Parameters


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 preloaded materials recipes. These insights are especially important to enable fundamental and applied research, and make comparative studies for process optimization.


OpenAdditive systems have 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 dither the laser in fully customizable patterns to affect melt pool. In total, the result is true tool path control over the process.


The OpenAdditive 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, .dwg, .dxf, .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 typically 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.

Open Sensing


Effective in situ 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.


OpenAdditive 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. Analysis modules are in development under various R&D projects and will be incrementally deployed as ready. Users have access to all raw data, synchronized with time and position stamping. Users can input these raw data files into their own software tools (such as MATLAB and Excel) to create their own analysis techniques. We are working now on our AMSENSE framework to allow users to download new analysis modules, integrate their own, or share third-party tools, each as individual apps.


Open Maintenance


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, or seek outside technical support, without being beholden to the system manufacturer or a manufacturer-approved service provider. Users shouldn’t have to pay exorbitant fees for service contracts or technical support which grant them the “privilege” of operating the system they already paid a substantial sum to acquire.


OpenAdditive 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 provide .stl files for any 3D printed parts so users can replace directly if needed, and 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 suspect many users will become comfortable keeping their system operating on their own after our first year working with them (particularly for the smaller PANDA and GRIZZLY systems). For the larger systems, continuing service may be the best bet, but users still have option to make any minor repair or replacement, with on-call technical support.


Summary


Together, these elements open up the possibilities in metal AM by reducing vendor lock and promoting a more engaged community of participants spanning R&D, training/education, and production. They are meant to be enabling without leaving users out in the cold.


I’d like to hear your thoughts on how the OpenAdditive team and product line can better serve the metal AM community. Please drop me a note at tpollak@utcdayton.com. Thanks!


Ty Pollak

Director, AM Products/Services