When we say an end-to-end workflow solution – what do we mean?

04.23.2021

Group of people looking at computer screen, high fiving

Written by

Ulf Lindhe & Robin Huizing

General Manager of Additive Manufacturing & Application Engineer

Have you noticed how frequently the phrases “end-to-end” and “workflow” are utilised as part of the lexicon within the additive manufacturing (AM) and 3D printing industry these days? There is a good reason for that. It is because users of AM technologies — whether OEMs, service providers or SMEs — have encountered issues around implementing these technologies into their manufacturing process chain.

As AM has emerged as a production tool for an increasing number of applications across different industrial sectors, it has become necessary for companies adopting them to look beyond the capabilities of just the machine and to consider how that machine can be integrated into existing factory set-ups. More often than not for companies adopting AM, implementation is not as an independent manufacturing technology; nor is it a replacement technology for existing manufacturing processes. In addition, it is no secret that AM parts generally require a series of post-processing steps that necessitate either additional hardware or outsourced services. For all of these reasons, adoption of AM requires integration into operational production settings where it has to co-exist with other production hardware and software infrastructure.

The importance of maintaining a complete digital thread from end-to-end cannot be overstated for achieving full traceability …. This is what Oqton can do.

This has thrown up numerous, recurring issues, most of which are the result of multiple, fragmented and outdated software solutions that fulfil various functions within the AM process chain. The problems are not process specific either. Whether the AM process of choice is polymer or metal laser powder bed fusion (PBF), binder jetting, SLA, DLP, FDM or even more traditional manufacturing processes such as CNC, the issues involved from the signing of an order to shipping parts out the door are considerable – this is the end-to-end workflow. It is logical then, that with such recurring issues, companies are emerging in order to offer solutions.

For any manufactured part, but particularly critical parts, full traceability is a prerequisite and includes the ability to trace all ongoing activities throughout the production chain and into service life. Today this invariably requires considerable manual input due to a lack of automation across the workflow which involves multiple, different machines.

For any manufacturer it is vital to maintain production files, including original and unmodified versions as well as any manipulated files for any product or component. Moreover, traceability can become extremely complex when using AM for the production of different parts within the same build, particularly if the parts have different post processing requirements and are for different end-use customers.

At the post processing stage, the issue is further exacerbated. Take for instance parts that require heat treatment, when multiple parts, potentially from multiple builds, will go into one furnace and all those parts need to share the HT data. Or if a part needs to be machined to achieve the required finish and/or tolerances. The hardware and documentation needed to maintain traceability of parts through it is considerable.

Further issues that arise include training personnel to achieve accurate inputs, together with the costs of all standard man hours; not to mention overtime when things don’t run smoothly and order deadlines have to be met. And so the importance of maintaining a complete digital thread from end-to-end cannot be overstated for achieving full traceability, while also improving automation efficiencies by reducing repetitive manual tasks. This is what Oqton can do.

The Oqton workflow solution is a well thought through hierarchy of functional capability that is built on three key pillars (AI/IIoT/Cloud-computing) that solve problems around traceability and automation to widen the bottlenecks in the process chain and provide integrated but flexible and agile capabilities from the outset. This has been achieved by bringing together some of the brightest software development minds of our age who trained at some of the biggest tech companies on the planet, but who see the logic and value of the Oqton vision and are contributing to it.

Interoperability issues are minimised because Oqton ensures the platform can integrate with any external software system or tool.

While Oqton traces all unmodified files, it can also track any offline modifications conducted in 3rd party software. Interoperability issues are minimised because Oqton ensures the platform can integrate with ERP software and slicer software, and indeed, with any external software system or tool used in the process chain.

However, where Oqton really stands out in streamlining workflow efficiencies is the added value it brings for build preparation with exceptional functionality in this regard. Within the Oqton environment users can:

-optimise build orientation, with the benefit of suggested orientations as determined by AI data

-every part in a build can have different settings

-automatically generate and apply unique integrated labelling in the most logical place to identify every individual part

-automatically generate topology optimised support structures for every part, including block, lattice or mixed supports, which are complementary to process simulation capabilities

-prepare the print, including fixing digital models in the background via the assigned route model and slicing

-set the build parameters whereby the platform will then estimate build times and set the density of material and material usage. This information can then be used to centralize all costs, including all the overheads.

The system enables intelligent automation in many areas that have proven to be real bottlenecks in the workflow, which is where true efficiencies are gained. Moreover, for multiple different parts within a build, the Oqton platform is not static and can make simultaneous calculations (via cloud computing) for each part on-the-fly. For a single, large metal part, users maybe will not appreciate the improved speeds, but for, say, 12 different parts, the overall operations are much faster because calculations are simultaneous.

Rather than being a modular, customized, lengthy and therefore very costly workflow solution, the Oqton platform is a single end-to-end system replacing multiple disconnected applications. It is also inclusive from the outset because all of the functionality exists and is accessible for every user through our SaaS model, regardless of organisation size, and can be scaled up quickly and easily. Furthermore, Oqton is an agile solution that can be be set-up in a matter of days and operational in a matter of weeks. Remote access can be granted to appropriate personnel remotely — and safely — from anywhere.

Rather than being a modular, customized, lengthy and therefore very costly workflow solution, the Oqton platform is a single end-to-end system replacing multiple disconnected applications.”

Thus, when we talk about an end-to-end workflow solution, we mean more than a just an integrated dashboard; we mean more than just a manufacturing execution system (MES), and we mean more than just build preparation. We mean all of those things — intelligently integrated with real AI and IIoT capabilities to offer a functional, accessible and cost-effective platform that provides automation and traceability for manufacturers. Oqton is also wholly hardware agnostic and allows for full hardware integration with considerable software interoperability.

The industry has been waiting for the right alternative for this type of solution. In developing Oqton, we’re moving manufacturing from 1995 to 2025.”

- Robin Huizing, Oqton