In my travels across India I often meet customers interested in metal additive manufacturing. I often hear them talk about how a particular printer or material is certified by a certain company or industry. I feel the need to set the record straight and have chosen this topic as the first misconception of metal additive manufacturing that I will address in this series of articles.
At the risk of oversimplifying something as complex as metal additive manufacturing, I will say that there are essentially four main components at play:
- The 3D Printer
- The Material
- The Parameters
- The Post-Processing
The process of certification involves tweaking all four components so that the end result is a metal part which satisfies the target certification requirements. This process usually takes months if not a year or more. What is really certified is the complete set of components that make up the workflow. The workflow is certified and not individual components. So, when someone tells me that a particular 3D printer is certified for aerospace or a particular material is certified for dental, I think they are either speaking from ignorance or are willfully misrepresenting the facts.
Let me explain with an example. Our entry level metal 3D printer is the DMP Flex 100. Flex stands for flexibility. You can print parts using multiple materials. The printer comes with 3DXpert, our software for metal additive manufacturing. 3DXpert has an optional module which allows you to edit the printing parameters. This is useful when you want to develop new materials, push the limits of existing ones or use a material from another source.
However, we have another 3D printer called the DMP Dental 100. The printer is almost exactly the same as the DMP Flex 100. But it doesn’t come with 3DXpert. Instead it comes with a dedicated dental software which doesn’t allow you to change printing parameters. We sell only one material with this printer – the medical grade Cobalt Chrome, not the industrial grade. That’s it.
The reason we put all these restrictions in place is because our engineers and scientists have worked for years to develop a fully certified solution for printing certified dental parts using Cobalt Chrome. Parts printed using this solution are certified as medical devices compliant with Europe (CE marking), USA (FDA registered) and Canada (Health Canada homologated).
By certified solution, I mean all the four components (printer, material, parameters and post-processing) are fixed. If even one component is changed or replaced by something else, the solution ceases to be certified. For example, since our DMP printers are open systems, a customer may use material from another source. But then they lose the ability to use the certification we offer for the parts produced by the DMP Dental 100. Likewise, if they take our medical grade Cobalt Chrome powder and use it on another metal 3D printer, they cannot use the certification that comes with our end-to-end solution.
The reason I decided to talk about this misconception first is because the other parts of this series will start making better sense once this concept is clearly understood. The requirements of metal additive manufacturing are very different from prototyping which is usually a plastic 3D printing play. Prototyping usually lays stress on form, fit and some function. The parts printed are temporary and can fail to meet the desired target requirements. In fact, failure will most probably result in another iteration which will again be tested, which is the whole point of prototyping.
Parts produced using metal additive manufacturing can’t afford to fail. 3D printed aerospace parts can’t fail. Things will fall from the sky if they do. 3D printed medical implants can’t fail. People will get very sick if they do. This is why a detailed understanding of certification is of paramount importance when you are making decisions on metal additive manufacturing. It is extremely important to understand exactly what is being certified and what can result in the certification becoming void.
To sum it up, 3D printed parts are certified for a particular use by a particular company or standards organization. These certified parts are the output of a workflow comprising of a printer, material, parameters and post-processing. This workflow is certified as a whole. Stating that an individual component of the workflow, such as a printer or a material, is certified is incorrect.
If you found this article interesting, you may want to click here to read other articles in this blog series.