In this interview with Rob Thiessen, founder of 3’D Revolution Technologies, Inc., we explore the importance of Hybrid Additive Manufacturing and its impact.
Q: What is Hybrid AM?
A: A simple definition of Hybrid AM would be: a method of additive manufacturing making use of multi-material printing, combined machines, or combined processes and platforms. Hybrid Manufacturing itself is not new, but its implications for additive manufacturing represents an important segment of the digital manufacturing revolution now underway.
Q: So does that mean Hybrid AM combines the outputs from different 3D printers?
A: Yes, but it doesn’t stop there. Hybrid AM can combine all types of processes, including traditional manufacturing and off-the-shelf components as needed, by merging them into a single, optimized production workflow. 3D Printing really helps to facilitate this process in many ways.
Q: Is there such a thing as Hybrid AM without 3D printing?
A: Practically speaking, yes there is. There are many analogue production processes available (and there always has been) that are additive in nature but do not involve 3D printing. In fact, current manufacturing is still weighted heavily towards largely traditional and subtractive processes in general. 3D printing is helping to accelerate the transition to additive, digital, and automated workflows. It does so by providing a highly accessible digital tool-set and sandbox in which the iterative process can occur rapidly and inexpensively. You could say that 3D printing is the working medium that enables Hybrid AM.
I think we are at a crossroads historically, where traditional and largely analogue manufacturing processes and know-how, are becoming integrated into the limitless potential of sustainable, digital fabrication and automated workflows. 3D printing is the “tip of the spear” in this process because it’s making it highly accessible and efficient on so many levels.
Q: What role do you fulfill in this?
A: I work with organizations and individuals to help develop their Hybrid & AM strategies. I guess you could say I’m a 3D printing concierge.
The 3DRT process starts with learning about our clients ideas, innovations and challenges. Once we know a little more about what their needs are, we can start to work through a 4 Step Process using our in-house 3D Printing Ecosystem, to address manufacturing and production challenges they may face at any stage of the production life-cycle. I see opportunities for 3D printing to enhance products and optimize manufacturing workflows in so many ways.
Q: 3’D Revolution Technologies has been developing its own ecosystem of 3D printers in order to meet customer needs. Is this something unique in this space?
A: I don’t think our approach is unique, but I do think we have a unique perspective and value proposition to offer clients. It starts with accessing the right tools for the job. Current success with 3D printing in all kinds of industries is driving the development of numerous different 3D printer platforms. The challenge for business is determining what combination of capabilities they should prioritize and invest in. This is where our experience in developing the right 3D printer ecosystem can help others avoid costly mistakes. We do that by first becoming familiar with our customer’s needs, their applications, and their priorities.
Generally speaking, all of the attributes below are what our clients might require, or want in a 3D print.
COST EFFECTIVE | ACCURACY | STRENGTH | BUILD VOLUME | QUALITY/FINISH | AIR/WATER TIGHT | MATERIAL OPTIONS | EASE OF USE | POST PROCESSING | PRINT SPEED
To varying degrees, each 3D printer/platform will achieve high marks in two or three of these areas, but not all. So which do you prioritize for any given print? When I talk about 3DRT’s printer ecosystem, I’m really talking about the combination of capabilities and material options associated with the printers and platforms we have invested in and use most often. It’s those attributes which combine to facilitate Hybrid AM for our clients.
Our current ecosystem (pictured above) is comprised of 5 main printers (MetalX, Mark2, Onyx1, Form2, Modix Big 60). We acquired all 5 printers (including post processing equipment) for under $200k CAD. From that investment, we’re meeting ~90% of our clients 3D printing needs in Plastic, Composite and Metal applications.
Q: What’s the best market for this technology?
A: I work with all kinds of businesses; everything from fuel cell makers to funeral homes. But there are a few that I enjoy working with specifically.
Some of the most promising industries for Hybrid AM technology include: robotics, transportation, drones and autonomous vehicles, alternative energy, water treatment, Oil & Gas, building construction, consumer products, medical, marketing, and space exploration, just to name a few. To be honest, It’s hard to imagine an industry that won’t be affected by this technology before long.
Q: Which industries do you focus on?
A: When it comes to our preferred customer, I think we’re most effective working with professionals and small to medium sized designers, fabricators, and manufacturers, who have a vision for their business and are looking for effective ways to make it real. It doesn’t really matter what industry they’re in.
Q: Clearly Hybrid AM can have a significant impact on manufacturing processes as they become more integrated. Can you provide details about what this impact might be?
A: The impact is often widespread. First and foremost, Hybrid AM opens doors for cost effective, scalable, and timely production of complex and purpose-built assemblies of components. This can be for prototype, or fully functional use.
Hybrid AM also facilitates rapid design iteration and ongoing product development through every stage of the production life cycle. Products made this way often combine form & function more effectively, and will even benefit from greater complexity compared to traditional counterparts. As a result, they deliver higher value and command a higher price. Note that the benefits I’ve mentioned so far are focused on new product development and production. Alternatively, in a Hybrid AM scenario, we can also integrate and make use of relatively cheap off-the-shelf components which are easy to access and incorporate into assemblies wherever it makes sense to do so. We can also improve productivity on current equipment, such as lathes, CNC, presses etc. using customized tooling and fixturing made with 3D printers, in order to enhance traditional workflows. This allows fabricators to cherry pick the broadest range of production methods and inputs at any point in the product life-cycle.
Finally, I often remind clients who are considering an investment in their own 3D printers, that the printers can at any time be repurposed for any alternative production, with little to no associated cost. This makes Hybrid AM highly adaptive while increasing and extending the return on investment for equipment.
Q: As the industry continues to develop and companies are adapting to these processes, how accessible would you say Hybrid AM is currently? What’s the average investment for business owners to get into this?
A: I see the greatest value in emerging platforms that target professionals and business in the 10k -100k investment range. These professional platforms tend to be specialized, functional, and proprietary, which is why they command a higher price then relatively cheap open source printers.
With respect to usability, profession platforms in this price range are typically more dialed-in and consistent than open source printers. As a result, they’re better suited for commercial use by engineers, machinists, doctors, dentists, designers, inventors, and fabricators. This market has tremendous potential for early development because it’s so wide open and there are so many potential applications being developed. There doesn’t seem to be a limit on what is possible, and you never know who’s going to launch the next great innovation!
Of course, basic desktop 3D Printing is even more accessible. Good quality open-source printers and materials are quite cheap (< $1000), with many different manufacturers competing for mass market sales online and direct to customers. Most individuals getting into 3D printing start here because of a personal interest or hobby. It’s certainly a very accessible market and a good place to start, even for businesses. Expect to pay $300 to $3000 to get it going. Results will vary however, and open source does not mean easy-to-use.
Q: When working with a customer, I imagine it’s a very thorough process of collaborating, defining needs, determining constraints and prototyping to come up with the perfect solution. Is there a part of that process that you find most rewarding?
A: Every time I pull a print off the printer, I feel like I’m opening a present. Honestly, it’s very satisfying. I also really enjoy the process of Design For Additive Manufacturing (DFAM). It’s about solving practical problems with good design. This process frequently yields immediate and significant benefits with respect to cost, function, and overall utility of the parts we produce…That never gets old for me.
Q: Any final thoughts as to where this might be going over the next 10 – 20 years?
A: How about to Mars? Like I said, I don’t see any industry this won’t impact, and we’ve barely begun to consider all the new ones this technology will spin-off. The best science fiction was written during the 19th & 20th centuries. During this period, technology was just catching up with the human imagination! In the 21st century, perhaps the opposite is now true, in that our imaginations need to work harder to catch up with the pace of technology.
At 3DRT our mission is to help individuals and organizations realize their 3D printing potential.