Metal 3D-printing, or additive manufacturing, is growing up. Processes are faster, more accurate and increasingly reliable. Additive manufacturing today is an established industrial manufacturing method. AM parts get even more complex and the demand for serial production is on the rise. The ﬂip side of the equation is that part complexity and mass production mean greater challenges in the downstream tasks associated with getting AM parts processed, cleaned and ﬁnished. Understanding the risks and increasing demands of 3D printing, Solukon demonstrate smart and high-quality solutions for part processing, oﬀering 15 years of experience in the engineering of AM systems.
Focusing on Major Issues
The predominant metal AM technology in the market today is powder bed fusion. Since these systems are based on melting of ﬁne metal powder, one of the key issues in the industrialization of the process: the removal of unfused powder from AM parts right after they come out of the machine. De-powdering is a weak link in the metal AM process. The issues faced by users include the risk of explosion, occupational health, labor costs, powder recovery, cleaning quality and process repeatability. A backdrop to these operational issues is a growing trend towards regulation and standardization, which pushes manufacturers to think more carefully about their manufacturing processes, both at the level of requirements for the part itself, such as cleanliness and process repeatability, and at the level of the manufacturing facility in general.
Solukon became aware of the challenges facing metal AM users in 2013 and has been developing automated powder removal systems ever since. The company is based in Augsburg, Germany, and has been supplying smart and high-quality solutions for the AM segment for more than 15 years. Since the introduction of automated SFM depowdering systems in 2014, Solukon has become the pioneer and leader in the automated processing of metal AM components.
The Solukon solution tackles a very real problem. After the print job has been completed, internal channels are frequently ﬁlled with powder, and attempts to clean the parts with air pressure are generally inadequate. 3D printed parts with complicated internal channels, such as heat exchangers or conformal cooling channels in injection molds or gas turbine parts that follow the contour of the part, have presented highly diﬃcult challenges for powder removal – in particular when the parts are large and heavy.
The Solukon automated de-powdering solutions with continuous and almost unlimited freedom of motion have had a major impact of innovation as it assures a gentle and time- saving de-powdering with reproducible cleaning results. Current powder removal processes are typically manual. On the surface, manual cleaning does not appear to require much knowhow and can be performed by using blowing or brushing. The truth is that manual cleaning very often is unable to remove stubborn powder consistently and reliably.
“Solukon products meet the highest functionality and safety standards”
The Solukon automated depowering systems are approved for safe and reliable processing of powder materials, including tough-to-handle and reactive metal powders like titanium. Due to highly eﬃcient and reproducible cleaning results, serial production and certiﬁcation of manufacturing processes, in industries such as aerospace and medical, are easier to attain.
Solukon systems clean metal laser melted parts within a sealed process chamber, using adjustable vibration and automated two-axis part rotation. Through programmable rotation of the build-plate in two axes, unfused metal build material is completely removed from complex parts and support structures. Depending on the build material, the process chamber can be rendered inert with safety monitored inert gas infusion.
The Solukon innovations remove the bottle neck that limits large and complex designs, and set a new standard for the industrialization of Laser Beam Powder Bed Fusion (LBPBF) technology on the shop-ﬂoor. The company continues to develop improved solutions, and aims to entrench its position as the global metal AM powder processing leader.
Two AM Experts
The Solukon founders, Andreas Hartmann and Dominik Schmid, have been active in the additive manufacturing sector since the beginning of the 2000s. After working together as engineers and project managers in a well-known 3D printing company, they decided to start their own business and opened Solukon as an engineering oﬃce in 2013. Initially, Solukon oﬀered engineering services in a range of diﬀerent industrial areas, such as food and packaging, but also continued to develop new 3D-printing systems and peripheral equipment for customers in the AM industry. Deep relationships in the AM world in Germany, nurtured over many years, and extensive experience in the needs of the industry, helped put Solukon on the map in a short time.
Technology was not the only reason for the company’s success. Solukon’s entrepreneurial founders threw their full weight behind the development of their company, taking personal responsibility for all aspects of the business. Both handled every step in the company’s development, from engineering through purchasing and manufacturing, to sales and service. With the growth of the company, today things are a lot more structured and organized. Andreas Hartmann concentrates on technical development and engineering of the systems and Dominik Schmid is responsible for the company’s organization and administration. Important decisions, either technical or commercial, are taken jointly by both of them. They serve as joint CEOs. This ensures that every decision is well thought through and sustainable. Both CEOs see eye-to-eye on the organic and sustainable development of their company.
“Our aim is to give the industry a smart and highly automated tool to close the gap between manufacturing and post processing. Our technology helps to save labor time, ensures the most stringent demands of health and safety are met, and increases signiﬁcantly the quality process. At the same time it reclaims the residual powder without contamination and makes it available for further processing and re-use”, says Hartmann.
“We think this is an important step for a sustainable industrialization of AM”, adds Schmid.
An Evolving Technology
The management of ﬁne dust in powder-based AM technologies has been neglected in recent years. Solukon expects this to change both as a result of what customers are demanding, and through the introduction of more stringent regulations. The company has been gratiﬁed to see that the AM industry increasingly recognizes the value of its highly automated de-powdering solutions. As AM moves steadily towards new applications for larger production runs, automation will take on greater importance through the entire process chain.
Solukon expects further growth in the demand for parts with high complexity, especially in the aerospace and energy sectors. It also expects other markets will be inspired by the remarkable creativity of new generations of engineers and designers.
Collaboration for Advanced Solutions
To develop innovative solutions, Solukon pays close attention to customers’ needs, and often takes advantage of the knowledge and experience of established and leading industrial companies. In 2018, the company collaborated with Siemens to develop specialized software that drives its systems, to facilitate the removal of stubborn powder deep inside internal channels using advanced algorithms.
The core competencies of Solukon remain in-house. These include engineering, assembly and service. However, the company does not hesitate to avail itself of the experience and cost-eﬀectiveness of the manufacturing ecosystem in Bavaria and elsewhere in Germany.
“We have built our team by selecting professionals with a high level of expertise and motivation. We make sure that they have all the freedom they need to develop. In this way, we create an innovative environment that makes us compact, eﬃcient and highly agile.” Andreas
“Building a company is a lot about business and administration, but at heart I am an engineer. High levels of innovation, in combination with traditional engineering skills, are what drive the company.”
Solukon target customers primarily in aerospace, but increasingly also in the energy, oil and gas, medical, automotive, governmental and defense sectors. Solukon actively exhibits at international shows in Europe and USA, and enjoys an excellent reputation among AM users of all kinds. The past two years have seen the company’s customer base grow dramatically. Solukon systems are now installed at leading manufacturers in Europe, the U.S. and Asia.