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The increasing automation of metal AM post-processing

A non-exhaustive guide to the companies pioneering post-processing solutions for metal AM with an emphasis on automation.

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Post-processing forms an important stage of the metal additive manufacturing workflow. Encompassing a number of distinct techniques, metal AM post-processing may involve basic AM procedures like support removal, process-agnostic procedures for production-level AM such as part sorting, and process-specific procedures such as debinding. The number of stages required for metal AM post-processing depends on the type of AM process, the material, and the part itself.

Below is a non-exhaustive list of the most common post-processing techniques deployed following metal additive manufacturing, along with some of the leading companies providing solutions for each technique.

Powder Removal: Solukon

Powder removal or depowdering is a critical stage of post-processing for LPBF and other forms of metal additive manufacturing that use powder as feedstock. Excess powder must be removed following part fabrication in order to clean the part, eliminate safety risks, and capture powder for re-use.

The increasing automation of metal AM post-processing. A non-exhaustive guide to the companies pioneering post-processing for metal AM.

An independent powder removal system uses a combination of part rotation, vibration, and compressed air to ensure complete removal. For reactive metal powders like titanium, an inert gas system is also required to prevent the risk of explosion.

A leader in powder removal solutions is Germany’s Solukon Maschinenbau GmbH, which specializes in automated depowdering. Solukon has worked with companies like Siemens to develop intelligent powder removal for highly complex parts with deep channels and other complicated features. Solukon’s best-known systems are those in the SFM-AT range, which offer features such as automated 2-axis rotation, powder lock, vibration with controllable frequency, glove ports for manual depowdering with compressed air or inert gas, and manual joystick control. The company—as we’ll see in more detail in this eBook—has also just released a new system intended for mid-sized part powder removal, the SFM-AT350/-E.

Support Removal: Rivelin Robotics

Support removal is a challenging and labor-intensive stage of post-processing for metal AM, particularly at vulnerable thin-walled sections of a part. Support removal generally involves cutting the part from the build area with a bandsaw before using smaller manual tools to remove supports from the surface of the part. Because of the time and labor required for support removal, efficient and minimal placement of supports is an important area of DfAM.

The increasing automation of metal AM post-processing. A non-exhaustive guide to the companies pioneering post-processing for metal AM.

Automation of the support removal process is a developing area of metal AM that will benefit AM production in the long term. One company developing technologies in this area is UK-based Rivelin Robotics, which uses “state-of-the-art sensors and processes” and robotic arms to carry out metal AM support removal with a 10-fold reduction in operational cost. Rivelin’s NetShape Robot counts GKN Aerospace and the British Ministry of Defence among its users.

Debinding and Sintering: Elnik Systems

AM processes like binder jetting and metal extrusion, as well as non-additive processes like metal injection molding (MIM), require post-processing steps like debinding and sintering to remove non-metal binder material and strengthen the metal structure that remains.

In the binder jetting process, the AM system deposits a liquid binder onto metal powder to fabricate a metal part. It is faster than processes that sinter or melt the metal powders. However, the binder material must be removed from the “brown” metal parts during post-processing using heat, solvents, water, etc. Debinding is followed by sintering in a furnace at a temperature just below the metal’s melting point, fusing the metal particles and resulting in a dense metal component.

Elnik furnaces at DSH Technologies.

A leader in debinding and sintering technology is New Jersey’s Elnik Systems and its sister company DSH Technologies. With more than 50 years of experience in the industry, Elnik provides world-leading first-stage debinding systems and second-stage debinding and sintering furnaces. In 2023, Elnik partnered with HP to provide a sintering solution for HP’s metal additive manufacturing systems.

Material Handling: Volkmann

Material handling in metal AM can be considered both a pre-processing and post-processing stage. Any material handling process must prioritize safety and cleanliness as well as efficient delivery to and from AM systems, protecting operators from exposure to powders. An integrated material handling system may have some overlap with a powder removal system.

The material handling stage of post-processing can involve drying of AM powders, (automated or manual) filling of AM systems, used powder removal from the AM system, sieving of used powder, and other steps that will vary depending on the type of metal AM technology being deployed.

In 2023, metal AM leader EOS partnered with fellow German company Volkmann to provide an automated, scalable, closed-loop metal powder handling solution suitable for up to six EOS M L-PBF additive manufacturing systems. With features like automatic refill, drying and a central powder handling system, the jointly developed system can provide 24/7 fully automatic powder handling.

Part Identification and Sorting: AM-Flow

Production-grade metal AM carried out at scale requires post-processing steps to identify and sort finished parts, as would be required in traditional assembly line manufacturing processes. The most efficient systems for identification and sorting at production scale use forms of machine vision to automatically carry out the process.

Industry 4.0 part identification and sorting systems typically include a machine with optical capabilities for part recognition, a system of conveyor belts for sorting parts into different categories, and optional components such as packaging machines, quality inspection systems, and pick-and-place robots.

The increasing automation of metal AM post-processing. A non-exhaustive guide to the companies pioneering post-processing for metal AM.

A leader in additive manufacturing part sorting is AM-Flow of the Netherlands, which provides a large number of modular identification, sorting, and factory management solutions—including its AM-Vision, AM-Logic, and AM-Sort machines—which use the company’s cutting-edge machine vision and AI technology. Its users include automotive giant BMW, which reportedly halved the time required for AM part sorting after installing an AM-Flow solution.

Measurement and Inspection: Theta Technologies

For AM production of end-use parts, measurement and inspection is an important post-processing stage. For dimensions and tolerances, standard equipment like CMMs may be used. However, other technologies are required for internal testing.

Customer demands for measurement and inspection may be higher with AM than with more metal manufacturing technologies like casting and machining. AM also differs from such technologies in that metal parts can have a great deal of internal complexity, with partly hollow sections, channels, and other internal features. Special non-destructive testing techniques are required for internal part inspection.

A specialist in NDT of AM parts is UK-based Theta Technologies. Theta’s inspection equipment—demonstrated in the cutting-edge RD1-TT system—leverages nonlinear resonance technology to detect internal flaws in AM parts using sound waves, quickly providing a pass/fail test result for metal parts. It has been successfully used to verify metal additively manufactured valves as well as non-AM parts like turbine blades.

Heat Treatment: Quintus Technologies

Parts made using technologies like LPBF benefit from heat treatment that can reduce part porosity, remove imperfections and internal stresses, and increase strength. Three common heat treatments for metal AM parts are solution treatment, stress relieving, and hot isostatic pressing (HIP).

Wallwork's new 2,500 square meter HIP Centre, in Bury, is set to be powered by Quintus' QIH 173L M URC Hot Isostatic Press.
Quintus’ QIH 173L M URC Hot Isostatic Press.

Quintus Technologies of Sweden specializes in HIP technologies, primarily for sheet metal fabrication but also for metal AM post-processing. Suitable industries for post-processing equipment include aviation, nuclear, and medical, where quality requirements for metals are especially high. The company, whose HIP solutions have been used to improve parts like titanium implants and automotive components, has collaborated with AM leaders such as SLM Solutions.

More about post-processing for additive manufacturing can be found in VoxelMatters’ AM Post-Processing Focus 2024 eBook.

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