Powder Collection for Metal 3D Printing is Automated by Solukon.


Almost a decade ago, manufacturers of laser powder bed fusion (LPBF) machines were showcasing dreams of a completely automated metal 3D printing factory. Visions like Concept Laser’s AM Factory of Tomorrow included animations in which robots moved build chambers and material units to and from metal 3D printers while CNC and EDM robots removed parts from build platforms.

It’s taken some time, but that dream is beginning to be realized and Solukon, an expert in LPBF processing automation, is among the pioneers. The latest evidence of this is the firm’s new Powder Collection Unit for Metal, the SFM-PCU, which the Swedish company aims to unveil at Formnext 2023.

As the industry ramps up to serial production and the depowdering systems expand in size, the handling of increasing quantities of residual powder has become a logistical challenge. The SFM-PCU aims to address this issue working in tandem with the company’s large-format SFM-AT1000-S de-powdering system.

As depowdering takes place, residual powder accumulates in a hopper at the bottom of the SFM-AT1000-S. An integrated vacuum conveyor system in the SFM-PCU is triggered to vacuum up the powder at a sensor-monitored transfer point. This powder is then channeled through a hose into a sizable container.

One of the standout features of the SFM-PCU is that the container is rollable and can be swapped during the operation. With sensors monitoring the container’s fill level, which can also be inspected through large windows, the system offers real-time visibility into the process status. By incorporating the SFM-PCU, Solukon ensures that the users have zero direct contact with the powder material, which remains in a closed system throughout the depowdering process.

The SFM-PCU is specifically designed to handle large volumes of powder, making it an ideal fit for Solukon’s SFM-AT1000-S and, depending on the application, even the SFM-AT800-S. The unit’s substantial container volume exceeds 100 liters, enabling its use in conjunction with up to three single-material Solukon systems.

This is just the latest in the Swedish company’s automation products. Looking at past tools, you’ll notice that Solukon has a tendency to collaborate with larger, expert companies to create its products. With CNC manufacturer Reichenbacher Hamuel GmbH, Solukon was able to introduce a combined unpacking and depowdering station. Siemens enabled the development of software for optimized depowdering. FESTO has worked with Solukon to clear powder from smaller cavities in 3D printed parts. In this most recent product, Solukon tapped Piab, a Swedish company, for the vacuum conveyor used in the SFM-PCU.

In order to drive down labor costs and increase throughput, post-processing needs to become increasingly automatic. This means that every step, from design and printer prep to powder loading and unloading, are incorporating more and more automation. While Solukon is the leader in powder post-processing, there is plenty of room for more competition. That may come from polymer post-processing companies like AMT, Rosler (AM Solutions), and Post Processing or firms outside of the industry looking to take care of the rapidly growing additive manufacturing market. Additionally, we’ll continue to see other aspects of the workflow become more automated. For instance, AM-Flow is targeting conveyancing and handling, while 3YOURMIND focuses on part identification. One interesting player is 1000Kelvin, who is using artificial intelligence to automate the process of optimizing the LPBF printer’s toolpath such that the part can be printed correctly the first time.

Altogether, we’ll see the automation of post-processing in the metal 3D printing industry continue to grow and evolve, bringing us closer to the fully automated factories once only dreamed of.

It’s no secret that additive manufacturing (AM), or 3D printing, has been rapidly gaining popularity and transforming various industries. With major manufacturers now looking to integrate all their tools into a mostly automated factory setting, it seems that the future of manufacturing is destined to be lights-out. And if we’re to believe the plans of global decision-makers, this is an inevitable reality.

But what about China? The Chinese AM market has been growing at a staggering rate. So, are they already ahead of the game when it comes to integrated, lights-out manufacturing?

Formnext 2023 is set to be the global debut of the SFM-PCU, a groundbreaking 3D printing technology. This event, scheduled for November 7-10, will provide a platform for industry professionals and enthusiasts to witness firsthand how Solukon is revolutionizing the manufacturing landscape. If you’re attending Formnext, make sure to visit Booth 12.0, D42, where the SFM-PCU will be connected to an SFM-AT1000-S for live demonstrations.

As the Chinese market continues to grow and assert its dominance in the realm of additive manufacturing, it will be interesting to see if they have already adopted this integrated approach. Will Chinese manufacturers be showcasing their own lights-out factories at events like Formnext? Only time will tell.

In the meantime, staying up-to-date on the latest news from the 3D printing industry is crucial. Not only will it provide valuable insights into the advancements being made, but it will also ensure that you’re aware of the best deals and offerings from third-party vendors. So, make sure to subscribe and never miss out on the exciting developments in the world of 3D printing.

What are your thoughts on integrated, lights-out manufacturing? Do you believe China is already embracing this approach? Share your opinions in the comments below!

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