Though many industries have consolidated their business or slowed down operations in light of the economic impact of COVID-19, many in the additive manufacturing world have actually achieved growth. Among the AM players that show no signs of slowing down is ExOne, a leader in binder jetting technologies that has ramped up its announcements and expanded its portfolio in recent weeks and months.
This week, for instance, ExOne unveiled a slew of new products, including the design concept for the upcoming InnoventPro entry-level binder jetting system, NanoFuse binders with embedded particulates and the X1D1 automated guided vehicle (AGV) for its production-grade X1 160Pro platform. Last month, the company also made a series of announcements, including new material qualifications, the launch of a new sand 3D printing network, the new ExOne Scout mobile-based app (powered by Siemens’ MindSphere operating system); new partnerships and more. It was a big summer for the Pennsylvania-based company, to say the least, and is now gearing up to be an exciting upcoming year.
To catch up on the company’s strategy and newest product unveilings, we spoke to ExOne CEO John Hartner.
Raising the bar
From the get-go, we had to talk about the company’s most recent system, the InnoventPro, which is to be shown in the second half of 2021 with commercial availability in late 2021-early 2022. Described as an advanced entry-level binder jetting system for metals, the InnoventPro is in the same family as ExOne’s Innovent+. Just a quick glance at the specs will reveal how ambitious the new system is and how ExOne is bringing its production-grade capabilities and know-how to its entry-level portfolio. For instance, with either a 3L or 5L build envelope, the InnoventPro has a significantly larger build capacity than the Innovent+. It is also substantially faster, with a print rate of up to 700 cc/hour, compared to 166 cc/hour.
In other words, the InnoventPro demonstrates ExOne’s intention to really bridge the research and manufacturing sides, enabling a seamless transition between R&D and high-volume production. This is reinforced by the integration of a piezoelectric printhead in the InnoventPro, the exact same modules as those used in the company’s X1 25Pro and X1 160Pro production-grade systems.
“We’ve been in the binder jetting space for a long time,” said Hartner. “And this just continues to raise the bar on our capabilities and what customers can expect. We think the InnoventPro is the most advanced entry-level system out there and it’s going to bring a lot of new features to customers. We’re taking some of the things we learned from our production systems and are putting them into our entry-level platform. It really opens up scalability so users can take their projects from the Innovent+, to the InnoventPro, X1 25Pro or 160Pro.”
NanoFuse binders on the way
To complement the unveiling of the InnoventPro binder jetting system, ExOne also introduced new NanoFuse binders, which expand the company’s portfolio of binder sets. NanoFuse binders are inkjet-printable nanoparticle suspensions that offer certain benefits, such as the ability to bond at lower temperatures, resulting in stronger green parts. This characteristic enables the production of larger parts as well as parts with finer details and features, such as sharp corners. Hartner said the NanoFuse binders will offer a variety of particle suspension types.
“We’ve done nanoparticle jetting for awhile, and what we’re introducing here really expands the use cases for binder jetting to larger parts,” Hartner explains, adding that the NanoFuse binders will improve print results and the sinterability of more challenging materials like copper and aluminum.
“Because we’re working with industrial piezo printheads, we have the ability to print a wide range of viscosities and binders, including nanoparticles,” he continues. “We’ve been conducting research to come up with optimized binders with nanoparticle suspension that will allow us to create a more dense part and, ultimately, larger parts. The size of part has always been a concern with binder jetting, and this opens up new opportunities. Additionally, because of some of the other ingredients we can embed in the binders, such as sintering aids, we can achieve higher resolutions within the parts we’re making. Finally, NanoFuse allows us to use materials like aluminum and copper with more reliability than before.”
Today, ExOne has 22 metal materials available for its binder jetting platforms, including third-party qualified materials, customer-qualified materials and R&D materials. With the new NanoFuse binders, the company says it can go further with its material ranges to fulfill a broader number of applications for its customers.
Who is the InnoventPro for?
In its press release earlier this week, ExOne declared its upcoming binder jetting system could be utilized by a range of end users, including researchers and manufacturers, from machine and MIM shops to high-volume producers. Speaking more specifically about the technology’s target groups, Hartner reveals who is showing the most interest in binder jetting these days.
“We serve such a broad range of industries, but I would say the largest industries that are really picking this technology up are automotive, defense, aerospace and medical. The automotive industry always wanted metal 3D printing but couldn’t necessarily justify the cost of laser powder bed fusion, so binder jetting is an appealing option, and we’ve seen a significant amount of interest from automotive. Defense and aerospace love the scale and cost effectiveness of binder jetting and they’ve already started to evolve their supply chains to be more responsive to new technologies. We’re also seeing more from medical, which has not traditionally been a space for us. As we’ve opened up new materials, we’ve seen some interesting new applications in medical as folks in the industry are looking more and more at new supply chains.”
In the emerging landscape of binder jetting players, ExOne has managed to stand out not only by virtue of being one of the first developers of the technology but also through its evolving solutions.
Hartner elaborates: “The biggest thing that sets us apart is the reality that we have products today. We have been in this business for over 20 years, and that has allowed us to build the trust of our customers and to deliver solutions with a range of different process settings. We’ve not always been as boastful as other companies, but we feel solid in our capability to deliver and continue to deploy industrial solutions that can give customers value. A lot of customers right now are thinking about supply chain disruptions, about de-risking, about tariffs and about the impact of COVID-19. They are looking, ultimately, to bring production closer to the point of use and that is really where we can help. Because they don’t just want to bring back old processes: they want to bring production back in a new way that is more responsive to their markets, more cost effective and more sustainable.”
Driving automation with the X1D1
Unveiling a whole new binder jetting system and binder set wasn’t quite enough for ExOne this week: the company has also presented a new automation solution to accompany its X1 160Pro system. The new product, X1D1, is an automated guided vehicle (AGV) that streamlines the transport of build boxes from the printing stage all the way to final sintering. The new automated transport system, scheduled for launch later this year, was developed based on customer feedback and moves ExOne ahead in its mission to offer a fully automated, Industry 4.0 solution.
“We have a multitude of material handling capabilities,” Hartner says. “But what we realized is that our customers are considering multi-year implementation plans where they tend to have five or 10 machines to achieve the growth they anticipate for high volume production. With that in mind, we felt we were being asked for a more automated solution, so we decided to productize the AGV for the X1 160Pro. The system can take the build boxes from multiple X1 160Pro units, carry them to curing ovens, then to the depowdering station and eventually to the sintering furnace.”
The X1 160Pro already integrates a range of automation, Industry 4.0 features, including system monitoring sensors. ExOne achieved this degree of automation thanks in part to a collaboration with Siemens. This August, the companies announced ExOne Scout, a secure Industry 4.0 app powered by Siemens’ MindSphere that provides real-time machine monitoring and analysis of production 3D printers through digital devices, including smartphones and watches. The app is compatible with ExOne’s S-Max Pro sand 3D printer as well as the X1 160Pro, which is officially going to begin shipping this year.
“That base level functionality really carries over into the AGV, into the curing ovens and into the automated de-powdering station,” added Hartner. “The great news is that these are all building blocks that can be put together in a modular way and can be upgraded. There’s a lot of room for new innovations in production metal binder jet printing, so we’ve got the base level and we’re going to keep moving forward from that.”
Seeing the longterm benefits today
The new product unveilings—along with the company’s many other announcements in 2020–show that ExOne is committed to evolving to meet its customer needs. As Hartner succinctly puts it: “I think it shows the complete view we have from entry-level to full-scale production of parts.”
Looking at the broader picture, ExOne sees itself in a good spot. “We’ve definitely been cautious because of COVID-19, but we are seeing the long-term benefits of customers looking for new supply chains and to re-shore production. We’re positioned as a natural partner for them. We have a strategy that is founded on delivering what customers need and driving down the cost of ownership to broaden binder jetting’s application base. We also have a vision for sustainable manufacturing without limitations, and that’s what we’re striving for constantly: to allow customers to build products closer to the point of use, more cost effectively and with more design freedom than they’ve ever had.
“We’re showing our capability and we’re seeing a positive future for us, and frankly, that’s dependent on us continuing to deliver for our customers. In regards to the InnoventPro, NanoFuse binders and X1D1 AGV, we’re going to continue to take a full-family approach to enable our customers to work in the way they want and to scale up.”