Additive Manufacturing

MAR 2018

ADDITIVE MANUFACTURING is the magazine devoted to industrial applications of 3D printing and digital layering technology. We cover the promise and the challenges of this technology for making functional tooling and end-use production parts.

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MARCH 2018 Additive Manufacturing FEATURE / High-Volume 3D Printing 42 combination of 3D printing and sophisticated software provid- ing a direct link from design file to production part. Automation via Project Skywalker Voodoo's next goal is to increase its run sizes to 100,000 parts while maintaining prices competitive with injection molding. To get there, the company must cut costs by 90 percent while increasing productivity. It expects to achieve this within the next two years, and automation will be a vital enabler. Voodoo has recently launched Project Skywalker, a three- phase plan for integrating collaborative robots (cobots). The first phase has already begun, with the installation of a UR10 robotic arm from Universal Robots in Voodoo's lab area. The price point, ease of use and 10-kg payload made this model the best choice for Voodoo's foray into automation, Schwartz says. The UR10, Universal Robots' largest model, offers six axes of movement and is equipped with force sensors that stop the arm when it encounters resistance—say, if it bumps into a human nearby. The cobot is slower than traditional industrial robots, but this safety feature makes it possible to run the robot without caging, even side by side with humans. Voodoo Mfg.'s cobot currently tends a group of nine Maker- Bots. This robot is programmed to take care of the "harvesting" part of the process: Once a print is complete, the arm removes the build plate and sets it onto a rack, installs a fresh plate, and presses "start" to begin the print cycle again. Previously, all these steps would have been done by a hu- man technician, but now the cell can run unattended overnight Project Skywalker, the next phase in Voodoo's busi- ness plan, is introducing automation. A UR10 cobot from Universal Robots set up in the lab area is the first phase of this project; the cobot harvests parts from a cell of nine MakerBots, removing and replac- ing the build plates as prints are finished. or on weekends. Current shifts at Voodoo run 8 hours per day, 5 days per week, hours that could be extended substantially with automation. Parts that come off the printer still must be removed from the build plate and inspected by humans, but entrusting the harvesting step to a cobot will free up technicians to do more of this work. This nine-printer cell with one cobot is only the first phase. Phase 2 will equip cobots with vision systems, while the third phase will add motion. That may mean mounting robots onto track systems, or integrating them with automated vehicles. Eventually, Voodoo envisions a future in which each of its cobots would tend as many as 100 printers. It's also possible that the ro- bots' role will expand beyond harvesting; cobots could take over refilling the filament of the printers, for instance, Schwartz says. Outgrowing the Microfactory Automation alone won't bring costs down by itself, though it will help. The full strategy will entail a combination of cutting expens- es and simultaneously growing the business, potentially through targeting more customers outside the manufacturing industry. Among the changes to come may also be a shift in technology. 3D printing has been the best choice for production at Voodoo so far, but the cost of filament remains higher than injection molding pellets. The company plans to save money by buying larger quanti- ties of filament at a time as production increases, and hopes to see more suppliers getting involved in manufacturing filament, which should help to drive its cost down. Adding to or changing the production process is another possibility. A portion of Voodoo's lab space is actually devoted to the testing of other 3D printing technologies at the moment. The business could add or be converted over to another 3D printing method, or integrate processes such as laser cutting or CNC ma- chining. In fact, the company's accounting methods even support this; rather than depreciating its printers over a period of 7 years as is common, Schwartz says, its accounting department uses a timeframe of 24 months. This means any piece of equipment could be phased out after just 2 years if desired. Physical growth is also a concern. With its 200+ printers, office space, filament storage, part processing area, lab and 21 full-time employees, Voodoo's 5,000-square-foot microfactory is beginning to feel cramped. The business will soon need to relocate, but the plan is to stay in the NYC area, Schwartz says. Many of Voodoo's customers are in the city, and being close by helps speed delivery. Plus, there's a wealth of talent for the types of positions the company will need to fill soon (software devel- oper, 3D artist and automation engineer, to name a few). While there is still some room to grow in Voodoo's current location, the impending addition of more machines and employees will likely mean a move for the company in the next 6 to 12 months.

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