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Tackling the complexity of mid-sized LPBF with automated depowdering

Solukon’s SFM-AT350/-E combines hardware, intelligent software and process monitoring for enhanced metal part depowdering and process transparency

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For years, the industrialization of metal laser powder bed fusion (LPBF) was burdened by the “bottleneck of depowdering”. Even if machines were optimized to print faster and with greater throughput, the need for manual depowdering was a hurdle to real progress, not only increasing lead times for printed components but also demanding more technical skills and labor. Fortunately, the tide has been turning: automated depowdering solutions such as those developed by German company Solukon, are enabling parts manufacturers to match the productivity of additive manufacturing with early post-processing steps like depowdering. Solukon has been a leader in the automated post-processing segment for nearly a decade, following the launch of the first industrial automated depowdering system in 2015. These automated solutions are also playing their part in establishing automated end-to-end workflows for metal part production.

Solukon’s latest system, the SFM-AT350/-E, is a sophisticated solution dedicated specifically to processing complex medium-sized components weighing up to 100 kg (including the build plate). Typically, when thinking of the toughest depowering challenges, one imagines a massive and complex component, like a heat exchanger or rocket propulsion system, with many internal channels. It goes without saying that large-scale parts, measuring up to one meter in height and weighing several hundred kilograms, are difficult to depowder, however mid-sized components, which are far more common, also come with their own complexities. As Solukon says: “Even for mid-sized components we are seeing ever-increasing complexity and rising demands on cleaning quality and process transparency.”

Tackling the complexity of mid-sized LPBF with automated depowdering thanks to Solukon’s SFM-AT350/-E system.

Rising complexity of medium-sized parts

Initially, the main concern of automated depowdering solutions was occupational health and safety. A higher level of safety could easily be achieved with basic solutions. With the increasing prevalence of 3D printed medium-sized metal parts characterized by complex geometries, automated depowdering, beside safety aspects, has become an essential part of reaching and maintaining the economic viability of the manufacturing technology. At the same time, additive manufacturing technologies make the most sense when conventional manufacturing processes fall short, for example when producing structures that require consolidation and components with complex internal cooling channels. This means that making the most out of the technology involves both designing optimized geometries and being able to efficiently remove powder from them.

As Andreas Hartmann, CEO and CTO of Solukon, says: “If you have a printed part with LPBF that is easy to depowder, you have not fully exploited the potential of the laser powder bed fusion technology.” In other words, the more complex a part is, the more complex the powder removal process. “So, just like for large parts up to 1,000 mm in the z-axis, we see a rising complexity of 3D printed parts that undoubtedly need sophisticated depowdering solutions with new excitation options and programmability for the medium-sized part sector,” he continues.

Setting a new standard for powder removal

That’s where Solukon’s SFM-AT350/-E systems come in. Currently the most sold depowdering system in the medium-sized LBPF sector, the compact industrial system is both highly automated (thus removing the need for manual labor at every step) and far more effective at actually removing powder from medium-sized metal prints compared to manual methods like knocking and brushing.

The machine’s powder removal capabilities are owed to a combination of hardware and software features. On the hardware front, the system is based on Solukon’s Smart Powder Recuperation technology, which integrates extended part motion (with 250 degrees of rotation on the horizontal axis and unlimited rotation of the build plate) in a fully protected atmosphere. Inside the system, the printed part and build plate are affixed to a fully rotatable turntable, which can be programmed for specific movements and rotations. This continuous movement is reinforced by targeted vibrations.

On this topic, the company specifies that its depowdering solution is available with two excitation options: the standard SFM-AT350 is equipped with pneumatic excitation and optional knocking system, while the SFM-AT350-E—released in October 2023—is fitted with piezoelectric (ultrasonic) excitation. The latter is capable of cleaning printed parts very gently via high-frequency and self-regulating vibrations. These automated features are complemented by glove ports for manual finishing with compressed air or inert gas. Throughout the process, all powder is recovered in a sealed container at the base of the system facilitating reuse or recycling.

Both versions of Solukon’s depowdering solution had previously been capable of handling parts weighing up to 60 kg. In order to make the technology available to a wider range of medium-part sizes, the company recently upgraded its systems to have a larger chamber volume. As of this month, the SFM-AT350/-E can depowder parts measuring up to 400 x 400 x 400 mm (or 500 x 280 x 400 mm) and weighing up to 100 kg.

Tackling the complexity of mid-sized LPBF with automated depowdering thanks to Solukon’s SFM-AT350/-E system.

Intelligent depowdering

As with any additive manufacturing or post-processing technology, hardware is only part of the equation: software has an equally important role to play. Solukon’s SPR-Pathfinder software transforms a machine that can move in many ways into a machine that moves in specific ways to remove powder from a particular additive geometry.

“Above a certain level of complexity, it is impossible to see with the naked eye how the component must be moved so that the powder can run out completely,” the company says. Even CAD files, which provide more information about a part’s internal structure, do not reveal an obvious motion pattern for depowdering. The software fills this gap by calculating an optimized motion path for a specific part geometry in the SFM-AT350/-E. This path generation is based on flow simulation of the part’s digital twin. This innovative approach marks the first time that a digital twin has been used in commercial post-processing.

From a user perspective, the software can dramatically cut down on depowdering times and labor. Referred to as a “fire-and-forget” solution, SPR-Pathfinder simply requires that users upload a CAD file of the printed part. From there, the software automatically calculates a motion pattern for the hardware to use for optimal powder removal. Notably, in cases where multiple parts are attached to the build plate, the software can compute motion sequences for the entire build.

Solukon’s SPR-Pathfinder software is not only compatible with the SFM-AT350/-E solution we’ve been focused on, it is also paired with the company’s SFM AT800-S and SFM-AT1000-S for larger builds.

The road to measurable post-processing

Tackling the complexity of mid-sized LPBF with automated depowdering thanks to Solukon’s SFM-AT350/-E system. Solukon’s automated depowdering solution plays a key role in the company’s broader mission to provide measurable, transparent post-processing for laser powder bed fusion. As the company says: “the processes downstream from printing must flow transparently in order to give users an undistorted picture of the efficiency of their additive production lines.” Also central to this goal is the company’s Digital-Factory-Tool (DFT), which consists of a sensor and interface kit for process monitoring, depowdering automation and digital integration.

Specifically, the DFT solution records process data throughout the depowdering process—such as residual oxygen, humidity, chamber pressure, power consumption, excitation frequencies and more—and synthesizes the data in a protocol file. Users can also set critical limit values for relevant data so that any deviations are clearly displayed and ready for analysis. The monitoring tool also measures media consumption and can output the carbon footprint of the depowdering process—features that can facilitate validation for future standards and regulations.

All process monitoring data can ultimately be compiled via OPC UA and integrated into the control center’s digital dashboards. This means Solukon systems can also be monitored from a central control center as well as controlled remotely, easily fitting into automated production lines.

Solukon’s DFT solution is an optional feature that can be integrated with its depowdering solutions. According to the company, about 85% of its SFM-AT350 customers currently use DFT and have reported positive results.

“The industrial sector has developed from ‘why’ to ‘how’,” Hartmann concludes. “In other words, our customers and other interested parties have recognized that for high-quality additive manufacturing, they inevitably need automated powder removal. They are closely examining the individual benefits and specific applications of our technology now instead of asking why they even need depowdering. We have been a primary driver of this important development and the entire sector will benefit from it.”

Ultimately, automated and process-monitored depowdering solutions such as Solukon’s SFM-AT350/-E ensure that printed parts are powder-free and ready for downstream post-processing, as well as create greater end-to-end transparency for metal part production.

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