by Melissa Donovan
Three-dimensional (3D) printing is more than hardware. There is plenty of brain power behind the machines from the firmware that powers them to the software that helps analyze designs, simulate real-life models, manage multiple printers together, and influence post-processing methods.
Above: Live Parts from Desktop Metal is a generative design application that produces lighter, stronger, and innovative parts.
It is impossible to touch on every type of software solution that assists in 3D printing. Some are OEM specific while others are open source from third-party vendors. In either scenario, the goal is to take a very complex process and automate it so that novice to experienced users can easily manufacture a 3D printed part.
Do it All
3D printers rely on a number of software programs. For example solutions assist in identifying errors prior to the actual 3D build and at the other end of the process involve quoting and computer management. Certain software products are specific in their purpose, while some address multiple aspects of the 3D printing process.
Michael Hackney, VP of software engineering, Desktop Metal, admits there is a range of software used in conjunction with 3D printers and it can get complicated quickly. He divides programs by being internal and external to the printer.
“Starting with a printer, there is firmware that controls the printer itself and usually a console application for user interaction. External to the printer are CAD applications used to design 3D geometry. As part of the design, or as a separate application, there are optional generative design applications. Once the geometry is defined, build preparation and slicing applications transform the model into the code that controls the 3D printer to produce a part,” explains Hackney.
Internally, Desktop Metal develops the firmware and console applications for each of its 3D printers. Externally from its printer, Live Parts is a generative design application that allows for the production of lighter, stronger, and innovative parts. Fabricate is a cloud-based service that analyzes 3D geometry and provides tools for preparing models. It also offers management and orchestration for definer and furnace devices used to transform the printed part to its final metal form.
Paul Heijmans, SVP of software, Ultimaker, says several areas, including design, slicing, simulation, workflow, printer management, and security are addressed with 3D printing software programs.
For example, Ultimaker Cura is an integrated workflow solution. An open source product, users can access Ultimaker Marketplace for various materials resulting in the best consumable required for the part. Ultimaker Essentials offers enhanced security, control, and management across distributed printers. This helps streamline 3D printer deployment at scale in an enterprise environment.
Major software categories include CAD; job management—order management and building preparation and machine planning; quoting; material batch management; and process simulation and post-processing, according to Sarah Abdi, marketing communications manager, AlphaSTAR Corporation.
The AlphaSTAR suite of Integrated Computational Materials Engineering tools referred to as GENOA 3DP addresses material characterization, process simulation, build optimization, durability, damage tolerance, and in-service loading.
“Many types of software address some aspect of additive manufacturing (AM). In this manner, we tend to overlap each other in one area and not the other,” adds Abdi. In a way, two different software solutions can complement each other.
While finite element analysis (FEA) solvers like Abaqus from Dassault Systemes, Ansys Discovery from ANSYS, Inc., and Siemens Digital Industry Software’s NX Nastran are popular for process simulation, other software solutions can help them in certain points of the 3D printing process. GENOA 3DP from AlphaSTAR acts as a value add to these FEA solvers, says Abdi.
“It addresses the effect of defects and employs nano mechanics and micro mechanics to assess damage initiation and damage propagation within a material or during the AM fabrication of a structure. Here, damage corresponds to common manufacturing anomalies,” notes Abdi.
Working with two distinctly separate products from different vendors is one way to leverage the benefits of individual 3D software solutions. Other products are available in suites from leading manufacturers, for example the Materialise Magics 3D Print Suite, which includes tools that address several parts of the 3D part process from design optimization, data and build preparation, and automatic support generation to machine communication and control, process and quality control, production management, workflow automation, and quotes and measurements.
Out and In
Depending on the 3D printer utilized, the manufacturer may offer extended software programs; or the user may have the option to discover third-party tools. There are advantages and disadvantages to both OEM and third-party options.
A benefit of OEM software is that it seamlessly integrates with the intended hardware, notes Heijmans. “Together they create an ecosystem that promotes easy workflow and enhanced control.”
“Depending on the OEM product, a common platform may afford the end user with a seamless transition through the workflow. Where a standalone tool would require the end user to manually move from one tool to another, addressing input and output issues. It may even require the end user to automate the process for herself/himself,” agrees Abdi.
Desktop Metal offers Live Parts for generative design and Fabricate for analyzing geometry and slicing. “The advantage of OEM software is that it is highly configured and optimized to support each device it is designed for. In many cases, the output of this software is proprietary so third-party options are not available. In addition, software bundled with hardware is likely to be a more cost-effective option, and support and service is tightly integrated, rather than a hodge podge of third-party support tools,” admits Hackney.
However, if a user opted for a third-party solution, generative design tools comparable to Live Parts include Autodesk Inc. Fusion 360 and PTC Creo.
Another way to automate the design process is with third-party provider Trinckle’s paramate solution, which is based on the parametric design process. It automates the design process of customized 3D printable models by integrating customers via a web-based configurator, or automating internal design workflows. Based on powerful algorithms, paramate enables endless possibilities for product configuration.
Heijmans believes there is pressure on 3D printer manufacturers to offer scalable solutions for all user levels. “With a widening skills gap in the AM world, companies are putting more pressure on 3D printer manufacturers to provide the onboarding materials for professionals ranging from novice to expert.”
He provides an example of OEM platforms offering additional features like training programs. Ultimaker offers an eLearning platform as part of Ultimaker Essentials, with the goal of “breaking down the adoption barrier and making enterprise-grade 3D printing easy to use,” continues Heijmans.
Users of 3D printers require software programs throughout the entire process of a 3D build. These solutions are designed to take the complexity out of AM and provide a nearly error-free workflow. Whether a one-off solution or a multi-process suite; OEM or third party; subscription-based or one-time fee, a number of tools are available starting from the design process on that help automate 3D printing. IPM
Feb2021, Industrial Print Magazine
3D, 3D printing