Additive Manufacturing Solidscape pushes 3D printing boundaries
United States - US-based manufacturer of high-precision 3D printers for direct manufacturing applications, Solidscape, specialises in printing 3D wax patterns for lost-wax casting and mould-making applications. CEO Fabio Esposito talked to Martin Courtney.
Founded in 1994, Solidscape is a 3D printer manufacturer with 5,000 customers worldwide, 45% of which hail from Europe, with the rest split equally across the US and Asia Pacific. The company is a wholly owned subsidiary of additive manufacturing system maker Stratasys, which acquired Solidscape for $38m in 2011.
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Moulds for complex, intricate jewellery
Almost all of Solidscape’s revenue – estimated at $13.4m for the 2010 calendar year — comes from business-to-business (B2B) sales. The company has a particularly strong user base amongst jewellery manufacturers, who use its 3D printers to create moulds for their product designs, but its 3D printers are used widely in dental applications for the manufacture of crowns, bridges and partial dentures, and by component-makers serving the automotive and aerospace industries.
“One of the things we have specialised in is moulds used in the manufacture of very complex, intricate jewellery where the wax that we produce has been able to fulfil the burnout and shrinkage requirements,” Fabio Esposito, Solidscape president and chief executive officer tells ETMM. “We can do droplets with about 66 µm, which is one of the most precise and accurate technologies out there, but at the other end it is about material behaviour.”
Solidscape launched its MAX² 3D printer in May 2014, a device aimed at the high-precision casting market looking for a device to create wax patterns that can be used to make moulds of up to 152 mm x 152 mm x 100 mm in size for end-use parts in a variety of materials, from metals such as bronze, brass, silver and aluminium to ceramic, for example.
Esposito cannot reveal how many MAX² devices Solidscape has sold to date but says there is also strong demand from educational institutions.
Advanced research applications
“I cannot disclose the details but we have intimate relationships with universities such as Cambridge and the University of Central England where we play a key role in advanced research applications, which are extremely demanding,” he says.
Relatively few companies currently use 3D printing in their component manufacturing operations, but Esposito believes that will change given the time to market and cost advantages the new technology can bring, particularly where 3D printing is used to replace moulds that have traditionally been hand-carved.
“There is clear return on investment because at the end of the day we replace partial or completely manual processes that would otherwise be done by hand, which with a 3D printer can be done in a much shorter period of time,” Esposito says.
Eliminating manual work
An example comes from LSR’s Design Studio, a team of industrial designers, app developers, mechanical engineers and prototype specialists that provide product development services for the wireless communications industry. LSR reports that using Solidscape devices to print at 5000 dpi resolution can reduce its time to market by allowing the prototype experts to go directly to silicon tooling or to cast internal parts without having to manually hand-finish components.
Jim Hollister, 3D Lab Manager at LSR, estimates that one recent project to create a mini-bracelet using Solidscape technology had enabled the Design Team to go from weeks of machining time and spending $4,000 to make a single set of metal parts to under two days and $200 for the same product.
“Basically, we started creating a silicon mould using our wax material, which could be used at room temperature rather than 105°C, which means no melting and shrinkage,” says Esposito.
Printers to produce larger moulds at less cost
Whilst news of 3D printing benefits for mould makers is being rapidly spread by word of mouth, the next steps towards taking the technology mainstream could be to build printers able to make much larger moulds at less cost which and seamlessly integrate them into companies’ existing manufacturing environments and processes.
“We need to work on making that [printer] bigger, better, faster and cheaper but at the same time as you start looking at manual processes and production you always need better materials,” Esposito says. “Manufacturers have invested lots of money in their existing infrastructure and automation processes, so the last thing they want to do is bring too much change into their existing facilities.”
Never change a running system
“So they want a printer, materials and software that can be accommodated without them having to change what they already have — that the wax that comes with the printer can be treated in exactly the same way as they have treated traditional waxes, for example – and that is what we need to do. That is of paramount importance and is where a substantial portion of investment is going,” the CEO concludes.