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How AON3D is changing expectations for 3D printing high-performance plastics

We speak to Kevin Han, the co-founder and CEO of the Montreal-based 3D printing company

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AON3D was born in 2015 with one main goal: to make 3D printing high-performance polymers more accessible. The Montreal-based company was co-founded by Kevin Han, Randeep Singh and Andrew Walker, three material engineers, all of whom were determined to put their own knowledge of industrial polymers and thermoplastics to use for additive applications. Fast forward to today, and the company is well into production, filling orders of its third-generation 3D printer, the AON-M2.

After a recent conversation with AON3D CEO and Co-Founder Kevin Han and a visit of the company’s Montreal headquarters, I learned that though the company appears to be a 3D printer hardware company on the surface, there is actually much more to AON3D than first meets the eye.

In addition to the industrial AON-M2 machine, which is built to process high-performance polymers such as PEEK, PEKK, ULTEM™ and others, AON3D is active in the development and testing of new filaments and has a deep understanding of AM applications and the technology’s potential.

AON3D Kevin Han interview

Going back to the beginning

“Back in 2014, I started out running a service bureau,” Han begins. “At that time, the market was still mainly made up of high-cost industrial machines and desktop level 3D printers. I started out buying a fleet of desktop machines and the core differentiator of my service was that I offered an enhanced materials selection. I would buy any material that was coming out on the market, test it, develop print parameters and then I would offer it.

“Eventually, the clients that I was working with started demanding more and more high performance materials that couldn’t be 3D printed on the machines that were available. So I started modifying the machines that I had and eventually got to the point where people were more interested in the machines themselves than the service. After about a year, I pivoted and started AON3D officially.”

When AON3D was founded, 3D printing giant Stratasys maintained a sort of monopoly on 3D printing high-performance plastics thanks to its patented heated chamber technology. In practice, this left a gap in the market for an affordably priced, industrial polymer 3D printer. And though many others saw the patent hurdle as insurmountable, Han and the AON3D team saw it as a challenge to overcome.

The resulting journey saw the development of three 3D printers, culminating in the third-generation AON-M2, which was released in March 2018.

AON-M2 3D printer

AON-M2, the third generation printer

“There are three things that we consider as the biggest problems for the adoption of 3D printing: cost, quality and usability,” Han says. “When we started, the first generation 3D printer focused on the first problem of cost. Industrial 3D printers cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, so unless you’re a Fortune 500 company, you’re likely priced out. The first generation machine was basically aimed at offering an affordable hardware platform that was still capable of working with engineering-grade materials. It was also great as a proof-of-concept to make sure that there was more widespread demand for this in the market.”

“In the second generation, we refined the design a little bit and started adding some feature sets,” he continues. “With the latest generation, the AON-M2, we wanted to go a little bit more mainstream by increasing reliability,  the consistency of output and more.”

At the AON3D office, a number of AON-M2 machines were running, 3D printing sample parts from ABS and, in the R&D department, printing parts from experimental materials. The machine itself has a build volume of 454 x 454 x 640 mm and a maximum build chamber temperature of 120°C. The heated chamber along with the machine’s industrial-quality hardened steel nozzles enable the printing a broad range of materials, including PEEK, PEI (ULTEM), PPSU, PSU, Nylon, PC, TPU, TPE, PETs, HIPS, PVA, ASA, ABS and carbon or other fiber-reinforced materials.

AON3D Kevin Han interview
ULTEM 9085 3D prints

Other notable features of the printer include dual independent extruders, automatic bed leveling, watercooled hot-ends and steppers, a hot-swappable build plate and filament run-out detection. In terms of speed, the printer can achieve maximum travel speeds of 500 mm per second. Going forward, Han says that the next generation of machine will continue to refine the machine’s performance though software will become a growing focus.

“In terms of the next generation, we’re focused on increasing performance even more. We’re going to continue to improve the reliability and consistency through things like mechanical design, for example, and we’re really going to start to integrate the software in the hardware. Right now, they’re kind of separate offerings, but we aim to offer a fully production-ready solution, where going from design to output is streamlined.”

Open Materials Platform

Another important part of AON3D’s business is that it maintains an open material ethos, meaning that its printer hardware can be used with almost any filament.

PEEK parts Kevin Han interview
PEEK 3D printed parts

“If you look at the additive manufacturing industry before, the selection of materials was very limited and very expensive,” Han explains. “There are a lot of companies out there with huge portfolios of their own plastics and it seemed like a big shame that people didn’t have access to all these options. There’s no single company that’s going to be able to commercialize all these plastics if you’re working in a closed, proprietary system. That’s why we chose to open up the platform and make it possible to work with anyone who’s got something on the market. We believe that, at the end of the day, materials are what will unlock applications for 3D printing.”

Because AON3D originated from a team of materials engineers, the company can be seen as especially well positioned to work with materials developers to help them adapt their materials for AM.

“We work with a variety of materials suppliers, from big chemical companies like Solvay to more niche startup companies that are developing their own formulations from scratch. We work with them to refine the materials and to bring 3D printing experience to the table. We help to develop process parameters for those materials and at the end of the process we can offer a curated selection of materials that our customers can use.

AON3D Kevin Han interview
Carbon Fiber PEEK Solvay part

“That being said, we also have customers that are looking for a material with particular properties and if there isn’t anything on the market we can actually go back to the materials suppliers and develop formulations specifically for the application at hand.”

Scaling up with software

Tackling the third challenge of AM adoption, ease-of-use, will rely on the development of software. Software, Han explains, can ultimately help to bridge the skill gap that exists for 3D printing.

“Right now, we’re doing more than just selling hardware, we’re offering a full suite of services, including training, application development, service and materials consulting,” he explains, emphasizing that the AON3D team works closely with its clients to fulfill their applications and ensure that the 3D printing technology is being maximized.

AON3D Kevin Han interview

“It requires a lot of human expertise currently,” he says. “But we are gathering information and data to build our software platform. For example, in the U.S. there are up to 500,000 companies that can get value from having one of our systems, but building a task-force of applications engineers to serve 500,000 companies is not very realistic. Software is really the only solution for that part.

“Unfortunately, there’s a high level of skill involved in operating a 3D printer at its full potential. For CNC machining, there’s a full educational ecosystem to support the operation. That doesn’t exist for 3D printing and if we wait for that to organically happen it could be another 5-10 years before there’s a solid talent pool to draw from. Software will have a big role in replacing the need for certain skill sets, making adoption easier.”

Three key application areas

Presently, AON3D sees three main application areas for its 3D printing technology: biomedical, tooling, jigs and fixtures and aerospace.

In the former category, Han says the AON-M2 is being used to produce bespoke prosthetics and to create patient-specific radiation treatment tools called boluses.

AON3D Kevin Han interview
3D printed ABS bolus

“A bolus is basically an object that is placed over the tumour during radiation treatment to control the radiation profile. We’re helping our customer go from scan data to a customized bolus that can be 3D printed the same day, on-site and at a lower cost than traditional methods. They’re using ABS for this application, which happens to have a radiation absorbency rate that is similar to human skin.

“Tooling, jigs and fixtures is a great application area that has a lot of room for growth in almost every sense. The return on investment (ROI) for AM is extremely clear but the awareness of 3D printing has been slower to spread. So that’s a market with big untapped potential. We’ve actually unlocked a new application through the use of high performance materials within the electronics industry, where you need extremely heat-resistant materials for assembling PCBs.”

He continues: “Aerospace is one of our largest customer segments and they are great customers to work with because they’re really looking to explore the maximum possible potential of the technology. Long term, they’re really looking to utilize AM for end-use applications and and the volumes are low, which offers good unit economics.”

AON3D Kevin Han interview

Continued growth

Since its founding, AON3D has expanded considerably—in all areas. The company, which has customers all over the globe, has experienced triple digit growth year over year and is preparing to mark a milestone with nearly 200 machine units installed. At the AON3D facility in Montreal’s old Garment District, engineers are assembling 3D printers as quickly as possible to meet increasing customer demand.

To meet the growing scale of the business, AON3D has also expanded its team to nearly 40 people. Montreal, Han says, has provided a fertile environment for recruiting new talent.

“It’s a great environment to operate in. There’s a lot of talent here, especially when it comes to developing software components. The Canadian government recently devoted a lot of money to developing AI and machine learning ecosystems and people from all over the world who are at the top of the AI and machine learning game are starting to flock to Montreal.”

Zytel Nylon Part Kevin Han interview
Part printed from Zytel Nylon by DuPont

Overall, the company is aimed at offering a viable manufacturing platform for businesses seeking to exploit engineering-grade materials.

“At the end of the day, it’s not about the 3D printer,” Han concludes. “It’s about the output that you need. Right now, 3D printing is this new thing so people are focused in on it, but in the future it’s going to be a piece of manufacturing infrastructure that just kind of fades into the background. This might be a weird way to put it, but when 3D printing becomes boring, that’s when we’ll know adoption has been achieved.”

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