Additive hardware continues to improve in productivity, accuracy, and in ease of use. Now, the focus is on software to improve additive functions and capabilities, and to take additive to the next level. Hardik Kabaria, the director of Software Engineer focused on R&D at Carbon, offers insights.
What’s new in software for additive manufacturing
Kabaria notes that more engineers are involved in some way with 3D printing/ additive manufacturing. Reports from ASME, for example, estimate that about 88% of the engineers use 3D printing, whether it’s for prototyping, bridge manufacturing, or actual manufacturing of the parts. More engineers view 3D printing as a toolkit, so more design tools are emerging to support them.
These tools support engineers to make amazing parts and to take advantage of 3D printing’s design and manufacturing capabilities.
With its manufacturing capabilities, each process is different, for example between plastic and metal materials, and every process underneath that. “So, there is a lot of opportunity to create amazing software in the CAD and CAE world to help these engineers create products,” says Kabaria. “I think as the processes mature more parts are going out as production parts (rather than prototypes) through these processes.”
“Additive manufacturing is, in my mind, still in a very early stage because amazing innovations continue to develop on the software side allowing users to create amazing designs. Lattices are one particular innovation. We had to innovate. But we just didn’t innovate on how to draw lattices on all the different type of lattices available. We innovated on the software that underlies this type of software.
“Once it gets to a mature state, the next stage is making these tools easier in terms of accessibility. That means any engineer who may not have a lot of background on 3D printing can at least use these tools easily. They should be able to make some parts, and then come the ideas of all the things one would have to do to optimize those designs for any particular manufacturing process. That in my mind is sort of the middle stage, continues Kabaria.
“And then the final stage is when everything is workflow optimized. That means the users are not going through three different tools. Everything is connected, often with plugins. But I still think we are far from that. We are in the place where we are innovating on the core technology about what lattices are, how to generate lattices and how to help users pick the right lattices with the minimum design iterations. Can the simulation software handle performing mechanical simulations on these lattices? I would say we are in that stage. And it’s exciting because there are a lot of unsolved problems and it can lead to amazing parts using this new way to manufacture things. So, that’s where we are all trying to create impact.”
A design that uses lattices can have 10 to 40,000 different primitives. This factor is significantly higher than the number of primitives typically seen in designs made for traditional manufacturing. Some developers of lattice software are innovating how to represent the primitives more efficiently—not just by representing them as triangles, for example.
Software programs are also working on robustness. One area this affects is custom manufacturing. When you have custom manufacturing, data are captured in some way, whether it’s from an iPhone scan or dental labs scanner. An issue that often occurs is that the data will have holes. The triangle measure is not clean. Thus, software developers are looking to create tools that are more robust in handling these issues, as well as being easier to use.
“At Carbon, we are able to deal with the parts that have holes. That means we have a way to create a meaningful out of non-meaningful input. I think there is active innovation here, algorithms being developed. I would say the state of the art is changing every month.
A challenge, however, involves handling all of that data.
“Can we use GPU (graphics processing units) to make the processing faster? I think that’s a great question,” says Kabaria. “We at Carbon are working on that idea. That type of innovation is what is going to take us to the middle age, where it is easy to use these tools for any engineer who may not have background in innovating.”
Tools integrate with CAD software
Improvements in working with established CAD programs are on the way. For most, though, it’s not an optimized flow, yet.
Notes Kabaria, there are several reasons for this situation. One is because the tools are still emerging. It’s difficult to create a full ecosystem today, but it will improve. Plugins are one solution for now.
“Everybody’s thinking about this,” says Kabaria. Our philosophy at Carbon has been that before we create workflow optimization, we make sure that the parts being designed on Design Engine are good enough in terms of business or performance logic. So, it’s going to be painful in the short term, but you still get benefit out of it. That means at the end our customers are putting a kick ass product in the market that they feel proud of, and know they cannot make any other way. And hence maybe that pain is worth it because we did enable to create a superior product. And the examples are countless from helmets to saddles.
“Let’s say we wanted to achieve a particular energy absorption performance. For a helmet, you want to do that by keeping the helmet volume the same. You don’t want to make a heavier helmet, but you want to achieve better energy absorption. Then you could use lattices, especially alongside elastomers because lattices and elastomers could create a competing metamaterial together that would outperform foam.
“Imagine you want to achieve a sort of cushioning response. That means you have a bike saddle and you don’t want to just create a bike saddle with 3D printing so it looks aesthetically cool. But you also want to reduce the peak pressure at the SIT bones. Academia has explored this quite a bit to understand that if you create many different types of foam, layered into a bike saddle, it’s possible to reduce that pressure. But then it will create a nightmare in terms of manufacturing cost and assembly. Shifting to a lattice design achieves the same comfort, but with less assembly and less cost.
“The business logic aspect comes in two ways because you are designing on the means of manufacturing. That means you are designing parts, let’s say using lattice structures and elastomer materials for Carbon, and you’re printing on a Carbon machine during the prototyping phase. So, you create this design, you test it out, you can do this fast because you are not needing to create a mold to test three or four different foam molded designs. Over the course of 18 months, you can do 70 integrations in three months. So the product development cycle is shorter and it is shorter for two reasons.
“One is, of course, you are using printed prototypes. And the same printer at Carbon is available to do manufacturing. And the second is the design is digital. That means you change your lattice parameters by a click of a button and you get a slightly different design. Yet, the workflow between designing the primitive and the CAD on Solidworks and generating lattice is going to be painful, but it’s still faster. And we have showcased that with our customers, that you can reduce the product conceptualization of the prototype and manufacturing time significantly. So that means you are able to put more product in the market faster if you utilize these technology platforms and that is your business logic. Second, you can add more skews, you are not restricted to offering just three sizes, you can offer five. There’s a whole scale between one or three t-shirt sizes to 50 skews.
“In my mind that is the business logic; let the product company be in the decision and driving seat to figure out what’s right for its customer segment. And this certainly helps in the medical device segment as well as consumer products. So, you don’t necessarily have to generalize too much and have sort of one size fits all approach.”
Based on customer demand, more companies are developing open-source software.
According to Kabaria, Carbon will offer general availability of its lattice software at some point. “That means you can design a lattice structure in the Design Engine Pro and download the STL file and you can choose to put it on any printing process of your liking. We are becoming more agnostic and we are certainly proud of that because we believe not every material, not every process needs to be tied up to a particular machine. But at the same time, we are being cautious. If a user wanted to use the Design Engine Pro and extended capability for a metal AM part, we are happy to jump on call and help you figure out all the areas where you may run into problems, because we certainly want to enable you to do that.
For Kabaria, applications are a motivating force. “I think the software is a tool to accelerate the product design needs to manufacturing. And I’ll give an example that has still to date astonished me because I’ve been working for Carbon since 2015. I didn’t have an additive manufacturing background before, but since then I have been sort of living, breathing lattice structures in one form or another. But that means I’m also always on the lookout for places where you could apply lattice structures. During COVID we all ran into the shortage of COVID 19 swabs. Swabs were something I would have never in my dreams imagined being made with 3D printing. Yet, the shortage and breaking of the supply chain sort of demanded that need.
We played a role in it. We were able to design the swab. And within 20 days we did a clinical trial at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center at Harvard, at Stanford. We proved that the swab is as good as the gold standard swab. And it was in use at hundreds of clinical institutions and it was produced using the same printer using the same design engine and the same materials that are already validating. So, in my mind, at least for me, the moral of the story is there are more applications out there than any one human or one organization can ever think of. Everybody has realized that the faster you do the product development, the more applications you can reach.
So, what excites me the most is as these tools go out the door, I think they will enable an ecosystem of engineers to find more applications that they can put in production, whether it’s once in a year or it’s a recurring product for tens of years, it doesn’t matter. We just want to enable engineers to put more products in manufacturing on any additive manufacturing platform.