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Optomec 3D printing smartphones

by • July 21, 2016 • No Comments


I spoke with the one of Optomec’s directors of how the company is applying 3D printing to weight production, 3D printing electronics, allowing the Internet of Things, Industry 4.0 and nano-materials such as graphene.

Away of the frenzied noise of press releases of new Kick starters and companies revealing the latest 3D printing “world first” there is a quiet revolution bringing place in manufacturing and Albuquerque’s Optomec are well positioned to play a central role.

“The distinction with Optomec is that we have been focutilized on volume manufacturing and how we bring additive manufacturing to volume production and weight production nearly of our outset,” Optomec’s Ken Vartanian tells me. That outset took place in 1997 when David Keicher left Sandia National Laboratories (SNL) to join the company. Keicher was working in the laser materials system group at SNL and saw how breakthroughs by the lab can be applied to manufacturing. Optomec were swift to license the SNL innovation and began the task of commercialization and expanding the company into a viable international business. With a reported 70% increase in revenue in the most new financial statements and an order book filled for 6 months it looks like the company’s $35 million investment in R&D is paying off. As Dave Ramahi, CEO, puts it, “Our solid growth in 2015 donates evidence that industrial adoption of high volume additive manufacturing is now a reality at major corporations.”

LENS and Aerosol Jet

This growth is driven by the expanding reputation of Optomec’s two core propriety technologies, LENS and Aerosol Jet. Ken Vartanian has been in the high tech industry for most of his working life and having spent the past decade at Optomec he is well positioned to explain how the company’s 3D printing equipment work. “There are really two conventional ways of manufacturing metal parts of powder. One is called powder bed, where a layer of powder is deposited and preferively sintered with a laser, and so another layer of powder is deposited on top and sintered, and the system continues layer by layer,” he says. Describing Optomec’s LENS innovation he continues, “The 2nd way to 3D Print metal parts via powder is called directed energy deposition. In this case the powder is blown of nozzles, either co-axial or angled with respect to the focal point of a high powered laser so the blown powder creates a melt-pool of molten metal. That molten pool of metal is and so moved around the XYZ axis to follow the pattern that is mentioned in the CAD version to turn it into a part layer by layer.”

OPTOMEC tagline 3d printing industryLENS itself stands for Laser Engineered Net Shaping and is geared in the direction of 3D printing metal components at the macro level. As Vartanian says, “Powder bed is advantageous at manufacturing hard geometric shapes and additional compact dimensions parts. The LENS system is advantageous at manufacturing sizeabler parts or for adding materials to existing components.” As astounding as 3D printing is Optomec were swift to realize that just for the reason a thing can be 3D printed did not mean it should be 3D printed and the company are one of a prefer few who have commercialized an approach that integrates 3D printing with traditional manufacturing methods. This hybrid approach involves combining 3D printing with subtractive techniques such as CNC milling. One obvious advantage is that parts fabricated in this manner can benefit of the hard geometry enabled by additive manufacturing and in addition the subtractive techniques utilized to finish off, such as milling. When both additive and subtractive are utilized in a continuous system, enterprises can save both time and money while manufacturing objects that were previously not easy or uneconomic to create.

A hybrid 3D printing technique

The hybrid approach to additive manufacturing came of, like most of the most amazing advancements in 3D printing, via the America Makes program. In 2012 Optomec became a discovereding member of the organization and later deepened their involvement to that of the top level of membership, Platinum. Vartanian explains, “About 2 years ago America Makes issued a project call to see how industry may make additive manufacturing additional accessible to end production use.” This outcomeed in significant research by Optomec looking at the barriers to widespread adoption of 3D printing. Vartanian says, “The sizeablest barrier we determined is the high cost of industrial additive manufacturing equipment for metal – frequently in excess of $1,000,000.” To address this Optomec consulted with future customers and discovered two facts were the key drivers.

“One is the low volume of additive manufacturing systems sold in the present day for manufacturing metal parts ” explains Vartanian. “There were of 800 additive manufacturing machines sold of the world for making metal parts in 2015 according to Wohlers Associates. On the other hand this represents a significant growth rate compared to 2015, the volume of subtractive CNC machine tools sold annually is orders of magnitude higher. The high volume of CNC machines creates an economy of scale and as a outcome the create cost per machine is much lower than an industrial 3D printing device. The 2nd observation was the wide range of standard CNC machine dimensionss and shapes on the market. Similar to most other suppliers of metal 3D printing systems, Optomec create a limited range of machines. Vartanian explains, “Invariability when we may meet with customers they may ask, ‘can you make your machine a little wider, or a little taller’ to accommodate our part dimensions and of course that customization adds additional cost to an may already expensive system.” These insights prompted the company to consider how to leverage the, “Much sizeabler canvas of on the market CNC machine tools that may be modified
with additive manufacturing innovation providing a additional flexibility and lower cost solution for our customers. This became really alluring to us,” sums up Vartanian.showcase-optomec-aerosol-jet-3D-printing-electronics

“From our vantage point LENS directed energy deposition is a additional flexible metal additive manufacturing approach that has not, in my opinion, been fully best known or exploited by industry,” says Vartanian. To address this Optomec took its propriety powder feeder innovation, deposition heads, lasers, system controls, and software, and packaged that all into what they call the LENS print engine. “About a year and a half ago we demonstrated a successful integration with a vintage CNC machine tool and since and so we have integrated the LENS print engine into numerous CNC machine tools,” says Vartanian. The company has high expectations for this approach, as Vartainian says, “that can lower the adoption cost for metal additive manufacturing and speed industrial adoption.

“We have customers who have implemented the LENS Print Engine in other applications that don’t involve CNC machine tools too. In a few cases we’ve integrated LENS metal additive manufacturing innovation with robots in a work cell or in laser welding systems for precision repair applications,” says Vartanian and and so proceeds to donate examples of how customers are via LENS 3D printing. “One of our customers, the Center for Remanufacturing and Resource Recoreally (C3R) at the Rochester Institute of Technology, is via LENS Print Engine innovation integrated with a CNC vertical mill to repair and remake military components. C3R is one of the world leaders in remanufacturing, that involves manufacturing or restoring worn or damaged in-service parts. The LENS system can either fully create 3D metal parts, when replacement parts are no longer on the market, or preferively and exactly add materials onto an existing metal component of nearly any 3-dimensional shape manufacturing it in addition ideally suited to perform repair/restoration operations. The LENS hybrid CNC machine provides a cost effective tool allowing C3R to perform most or all of remanufacturing/restoring operations on one platform.”

A $75 billion market opportunity

With this approach to the market Optomec are confident they can lower adoption barriers and access a significantly sizeabler customer base than can be served by developing its own additive manufacturing automation platforms. “The number of CNC machine tools that are sold ereally year are really sizeable valued at over $75B in 2015 according to the Gardner World Machine-Tool Output & Consumption Survey. Our estimate is over time nearly 5-10% of those machines can have integrated additive manufacturing capabilities,” says Vartanian. But this is not the just 3D printing innovation on the market of Optomec, the company in addition supplies 3D printing systems that target the electronics market.

Aerosol Jet is, “A new printing innovation created in early 2000 as a outcome of a [U.S.] Department of Defense request looking at new printing innovation that may be utilized for printing electronics on 3D surfaces, on low temperature substrates and via a wide variety of electronic materials,” explains Vartanian. He continues, “Printing innovation has been around for really a while and technologies such as ink-jet and screen printing have been modified
for use in the electronics industry. But these technologies have their limitations in terms of the materials they can print and as well they were primarily created to print on flat objects, like paper. So consequently, Aerosol Jet innovation was created as a new printing innovation to address these limitations. Two showcases of Aerosol Jet 3D printing set the innovation apart of other methods. “The input mechanism is really one-of-a-kind that allows for printing of a wide variety of materials. And the output mechanism is really one-of-a-kind as well in that it allows for conformal printing over a variety of surfaces, either flat or non-planar,” says Vartanian.

Nano-particle inks

“The way the system works is a commercially on the market material in liquid form is atomized to form a dense mist of material laden droplets. A wide variety of materials is supported by the system which include metal nano-particle inks, diluted thick movie pastes, thermosetting polymers such as UV-curable epoxies, and solvent-based polymers like polyurethane and polyimide. Basically any material that can be suspended in a solution and atomized can be systemed with Aerosol Jet innovation” Vartanian explains. For conductive metal inks, there are thousands of nanoparticle contained inside every droplet. The nanoparticles typically utilized in the inks are around 50-100 nm (nanometers) in diameter and the droplets created by the atomizer are 2-5 microns in diameter. So every droplet encapsulates thousands of nanoparticles. After atomization the dense mist of material is delivered to the print head where a sheath gas is added to compress and focus the mist. The sheath gas in addition serves to insulate the nozzle of the mist to prevent clogging. In addition by controlling the gas flow the mist can be compressed into a tight beam, allowing dynamic focvia of the material as it exits the nozzle.” For example, an Aerosol Jet printing device fitted with a 100 micron diameter nozzle can be regulated to create a beam ranging down to 10 microns by adjusting the gas flow.

When the material exits the nozzle it is travelling nearly 70 meters per 2nd. Due to the high speed, “it remains collimated [parallel or all lined up] during its travel of the exit of the nozzle to the substrate for a distance up to 5 mm. A advantageous way to describe it is to say the Aerosol Jet beam of material has a long focal length. This allows for Aerosol Jet to print onto irregular or non-planar surfaces and maintain showcase resolution,” explains Vartanian. Optomec approached the innovation in a much like manner to LENS, “We do sell standalone systems that can be utilized for education, R&D and low-volume production but we in addition have packaged Aerosol Jet core innovation into a print engine for integration with commercial automation platforms. Aerosol Jet innovation is a really scalable for high-volume production applications,” he says.

3D printing smartphones

3D printing has been manufacturing an impact both in the smartphone industry and the world of DIY. Vartanian donates an example of how 3D printing is may already in use in weight production. “Lite-On Mobile Mechanical SBG is a really sizeable electronics contract make and have operations around the world, one of that is in Guangzhou, China. They have a number of our machines in Guangzhou China operating 24/7 printing electronics onto mobile devices, such as smartphones, in fact utilized inside the smartphone. They do work for a few of the major brand cell phone OEMS. Roughly of a year ago now we delivered multiple machines that have been operating 24 hours a day, 7 days a week printing electronics onto millions of cell phone cases. We are printing electronics in a conforming manner on the edges and inside the cover via a 5 axis CNC machine tool platform. Each machine is equipped with multiple print heads that can swiftly be swapped out during cleaning cycles. It is a really excellent partnership we have with Lite-On Mobile, they have done an excellent job deploying this innovation and attuning it to their system requires. We work really closely with them. They are getting really excellent yields, costs are on target and their Aerosol Jet production method, that they call 3DP, is a green system eliminating the require for plating.”Optomec LENS 3D Printing

3D printing electronics brings a number of benefits, “It boils down to 4 components: flexibility, speed, cost and environmental impact. All of that are significant but if you can’t create it cheaper with additive manufacturing, or at very least no additional expensive than the current manufacturing method, and so introducing a new manufacturing system is really difficult.” says Vartanian. The old system utilized at LITE-ON to make cell phone electronics required plating and utilized a number of toxic and futurely hazardous chemicals. “3DP is an environmentally friendly solution as it requires no plating or nickel, creates really little system waste” say Lite-On Mobile.

“A sizeable percentage of the electronics in a smartphone can be maked with additive manufacturing in the present day. For example sensors, antennas, 3D interconnects for stacked die, and capacitive grids/circuitry for touch screen displays have all been printed via Aerosol Jet innovation,” Vartanian says. The innovation in addition has applications for the Internet of Things. “The IoT is a sizeable market opportunity for Aerosol Jet printing. The notion of smart/connected devices applies equally to consumer and industrial products. For example, condition based maintenance for industrial products such as Gas Turbine Engines can be enabled by printing conformal sensors onto turbine blades. These sensors can and so be utilized to monitor dimensional alter in the blade that is an early indicator of future failure. Aerosol Jet is in pre-production use for this application in the present day.”

Graphene and nano-materials

Graphene is a nano-material with alluring properties which include high conductivity and astonishing durablity. But integrating the material into applications where the benefits of those properties are fully harnessed has proved problematic. Applications of graphene include flexible electronics or improved energy storage space for electric cars. Vartanian says, “We have several customers who use Aerosol Jet to deposit either graphene, graphene oxide, or Carbon Nano Tubes. For graphene / graphene oxide they are via commercially on the market materials and in addition of research institutes. Typical applications are thin movie conductors with thicknesses ranging of 50nm to ≤1um.”

Optomec is a excellent example of company driving the cluster of technologies that make up Industry 4.0. 3D printing equipment can both perform the manufacturing in smart factories and technologies such as Aerosol Jet can enable the interoperability of machines to communicate with every other across the Internet of Things. Hybrid manufacturing extends the capabilities of traditional techniques, while working with nano-materials is an amazing new frontier. Given this surge in activity, reports of the death of 3D printing are excellently exaggerated.


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