Additive manufacturing is not as simple as many imagined it would be when the first 3D printers appeared on the market. Printing a single part often requires multiple specialized software tools for design, optimization, build preparation, simulation and more. Switching between them can result in bottlenecks that make it impossible to deliver parts on time.
These workflow inefficiencies are common, but they’re not without a solution. The key is to use a single software throughout the entire additive manufacturing workflow, with all the tools you need in one place.
In this blog, I’ll guide you through the stages of printing industrial parts, highlight the usual bottlenecks, and show how an all-in-one software like 3DXpert allows you to avoid them.
The machines and software solutions you can use for 3D printing are numerous, with new ones continuously emerging on the market, but as far as the workflow is concerned, everyone usually follows the same standard. You design a model, prepare it for 3D printing, and send the file to the machine.
Every stage of this process requires specific tools, but how many you use depends on the complexity of your project. At a bare minimum, you have CAD software for designing the model and 3D printing software for build preparation and manufacturing. A more elaborate process includes design for additive manufacturing (DfAM) tools for optimizing a part with lattices, lightweighting and more.
Over the years, there has been a proliferation of specialized software that caters to a specific step of the process. These solutions do a better job in certain tasks, such as modelling repeating structures like gyroids or simulating heat-induced deformation in metals.
However, there are some downsides to specialization. Manufacturers need to use many solutions in their workflow, which increases inefficiencies. Engineers are transferring models from one software to the next, wasting time on data conversion, fixing models and hoping the original design hasn’t been compromised.
Imagine if you have a one-stop shop for additive manufacturing, the whole toolset in one place, whether you’re printing a hip cup or a heat exchanger. This is where 3DXpert comes in. It removes inefficiencies from the very first stage, when loading the design into the software, all the way to the manufacture of a part.
Every 3D printed part begins its life as a 3D model. Designers use CAD software such as SolidWorks, Catia, or Siemens NX to create a model, and they export it as a solid, either in their native format or in neutral formats like STEP. Engineers import these into 3D printing software – and then the operational headaches begin.
Many software solutions in the market today work with mesh files only, which means that any solid model has to be converted into an STL before you start build preparation. Converting the file can take several hours, and the resulting STL model can be an issue for your computer.
One customer shared with me their STL file of a heat exchanger and it had 34 GB. The original CAD file has just 158 MB. Loading a 34 GB file can take several hours while loading a 158 MB file takes just seconds.
Files of that size are a nightmare to work with. Even if your computer can handle a 34-gigabyte model, you face the possibility that the conversion resulted in changes to the design. An STL is just an approximation of a CAD model. Fine features, like tiny channels that you find in rocket engines, may not convert correctly.
You circumvent all of these problems if you can load and continue working with a solid model, or any other geometry, directly in the 3D software. 3DXpert was built with CAD at its core so you don’t have to grapple with data integrity loss, painfully long conversions, or file fixing. Simply import the file and you’re ready to go.
With the 3D model loaded, manufacturers can start applying DfAM tools to enhance part performance.
DfAM refers to a range of features we simply couldn’t achieve with traditional manufacturing methods. Lattices can be used to reduce the mass of an automotive or aerospace part or to improve heat exchanger performance. You can use topology optimization to lightweight brackets.
Not all 3D printing software comes with these tools, so product developers are compelled to bring into the workflow another piece of software to generate lattices. More software makes achieving traceability more difficult and enhances the risk of data integrity compromise. With files living in various software solutions, it is more difficult to give your entire team quick access to the right version of the files.
But DfAM should be part and parcel of 3D printing. Maybe you won’t use it in every project, but it’s essential to have the option. 3DXpert comes with a range of parametric features for lattices, surface lattices, and infills, as well as implicit modelling and conformal channel design capabilities. You can optimize your parts quickly and maintain traceability.
Emerson, who print critical service components for control valves, initially had a multi-software workflow that involved unwanted yet unavoidable format conversions. With 3DXpert they “eliminated a ton of in-and-out of software operations” and achieved the goal of “maintaining top data integrity and eliminating redundancy from our workflow,” according to Tom Gabriel, Emerson’s R&D Manager for Additive Manufacturing.
Build preparation involves a sequence of steps that can be highly repetitive, especially if you’re printing a high volume of similar parts. Wherever there’s repetition, there’s an opportunity for automation – and 3DXpert comes with a host of tools for that purpose.
Let’s start with supports, the dirty underbelly of 3D printing. They're essential for printing overhangs or bridges, fixing the part to the build plate, and removing heat. On the flipside, they drive up costs due to additional material use and post-processing work.
You can save on time and material if you optimize and automate support generation. 3DXpert allows you to apply just the right amount of supports necessary to ensure a successful build, but not too much.
With support templates, meta templates and scripts you can apply the same strategy to similar builds. Even if a customer comes with an engineering order change a month after the initial print, you can apply all the same build preparation presets by replacing the old part version with the new one.
Once you’ve generated the right supports, you’ll want to check how the part will behave during the printing process to identify problems in the build before they occur. Simulation is crucial to reducing the cost of 3D printing, particularly in processes like Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DMLS) where materials are expensive.
However, it's important to note that not all 3D printing software solutions include build simulation. Many manufacturers end up adding a separate piece of software into their workflow, introducing potential data transfer issues, and the need for additional staff training.
3DXpert has a state-of-the art simulation engine integrated into build preparation, allowing you to reduce errors or inefficiencies associated with dealing with multiple separate software tools.
At the final stage of the workflow, it's time to slice, hatch, label and nest. These are simple actions that a standard 3D printing software can perform, but the flexibility and efficiency with which they’re done is what makes all the difference.
Take slicing for example. This is one of the biggest opportunities for time-savings with 3DXpert. From service bureaus like ADDMAN to propulsion specialists like Agile Space Industries, a wide range of users are seeing slicing time drastically drop with 3DXpert.
Agile Space’s Director of additive manufacturing Kyle Metsger said “slicing with 3DXpert, we’ve seen a 60 to 70% reduction in overall time from build prep to machine”.
3DXpert takes full advantage of multiple cores and GPU acceleration. You can offload slicing and simulation process to a dedicated hardware with multiple cores enabling engineers to focus on other activities on their local work stations. You can simplify serial production because 3DXpert allows you to re-slice just the label of a new part while everything else stays the same.
Another advantage of the slicer and the hatcher is their flexibility. Whether you require a plug-and-play set of parameters for your printer or ultimate customization, 3DXpert can accommodate for your needs.
And because it is machine-agnostic nature, you can use it on a wide range of printers. 3DXpert provides direct slicing capabilities for multiple machine vendors and it offers OEM slicer connectivity through Software Development Kits (SDKs). This empowers you to export files in formats that your specific 3D printer can readily understand and use.
Once the part has been sliced, you can run a thermal simulation to check and compensate for any distortion or for overheating layers. Based on the simulation you can create layer-specific waiting times to increase efficiency while achieving a thermally stability.
Additive manufacturing is transforming production, with new use cases emerging constantly. But it’s also a process that can be costly and time-consuming if you don’t have the right tools for the job.
If you’re just starting your 3D printing journey or looking to increase efficiency in your existing set-up, 3DXpert puts you on the course to success with best-in-class capabilities for every stage of the workflow. You can streamline your production, maximize efficiency, and avoid costly errors, by completing all processes in one software environment.