Today we meet Frédéric Grosset, head of the 3D printing division at the Annecy site of the Japanese group ARRK. His vast experience in the field of additive manufacturing allows us to discuss with him the past, present and future of the technology.
TSL- Could you briefly describe your professional background?
Frédéric – I trained as a mechanical modeller and then as an industrial draughtsman. I started my career as a modelling technician in 1991.
After 3 years at the workshop, my company decided to acquire a large format 600x600x400 stereolithography machine from the manufacturer EOS-gmbh. It was the first machine (in Beta-test) of this size in France and the start-up was rather complicated because it was a quasi unique machine, one can even say that it was a prototype manufactured at the request of BMW.
So, I had put a foot in the world of 3D printing and 2 years later my company invested again in 2 other machines still EOS: another SLA of the same size and one of the first SLS. This time, I was completely immersed in additive manufacturing.
In 2004, the first MCP SLM machine was integrated, quickly followed by other machines for dental, jewellery and aerospace applications.
“25 years ago, 3D printing was exclusively reserved for the industry, the equipment was very expensive as was the service.”
What was the 3D printing field like 25 years ago?
There was a lot of curiosity about 3D printing and the feeling that everyone wanted to try this new thing to get parts, but there was still a big constraint to achieve this: the absolute necessity to have a perfect 3D digital file and this was not often the case.
And the striking phenomenon was already this over-mediatisation which had a preponderant role to play at the start with articles that were sometimes a little too far from reality, e.g.: “come with a 3D file in the morning and leave with this printed part in the afternoon”.
At the market level, who were the typical customers and users?
The first customers were mainly plastics manufacturers, then the automotive sector quickly became very demanding.
Let’s not forget that masters for vacuum casting, usually made by traditional methods (machining and layout), were quickly 3D printed, which meant a considerable saving in time to get the model.
What kind of parts were we making at the time?
Parts for household appliances. I remember technical elements for dishwashers (about 500x500x150), so typically a plastics manufacturer’s project. Then the automotive industry quickly wanted to test with a challenge (at the time): a dashboard with duplication by silicone moulding and casting of a few units in PU resin. The very positive result quickly led to a series of equally impressive projects in the following years.
We are talking about which materials?
The material is always the sensitive point in resin technology, first the acrylates of the early days were very fragile and subject to deformation. Then in 1995, a second generation of vinylester resin came from the chemist Allied-Signal, which was more efficient but also very restrictive to use. In 1996, the appearance of the first epoxy resins which considerably improved the quality and mechanical properties of the parts.
SLS, on the other hand, using a PA12 thermoplastic, has undergone little change except for the use of finer powders which have improved the appearance of the parts.
Finally, the machines have not evolved much on the technical level, the improvements mainly concern the reliability of the systems and the speed of laser scanning.
We often talk about the democratisation of Additive Manufacturing in the decade 2010-2020, but how has it evolved over the last quarter century?
Between 2010 and 2020, technologies such as FDM and DLP are making machines available to more people (as well as to individuals).
What has changed since the 90s in terms of technologies, materials, processes, business areas and users?
Since the 1990s, the technologies have diversified but the method remains the same: layer by layer.
Beyond the evolution of materials and their diversity, the potential of additive manufacturing also lies in the freedom of design and today the design of products is adapted and thought out for this technology.
“3D plastic printing is expected to gain momentum in the field of direct mass production thanks to the continuous development of production capacities”
Where are we today?
Chemists are working hard to offer durable materials with mechanical properties that are increasingly similar to those of injection materials, so I think that 3D printing could take a turn in the not too distant future.
Beyond the promises offered by machine and material manufacturers on the performance and relevance of additive manufacturing, it will remain to convince customers to change their habits, which is very difficult, in short to change mentalities.
How do you see the future? Are we expecting new revolutions in the 3D printing market? Perhaps the most expected is in the area of materials?
The prospects for 3D printing remain promising and many professions want to use additive manufacturing: construction, catering, clothing, etc.
For me, the future depends mainly on the materials that can be used, but there is no doubt that in this field progress is considerable. Yes, materials are the “spearhead” in additive manufacturing.
There will come a day when we will be able to mass-produce parts with 3D printing (metal or plastic)?
Plastic 3D printing should become increasingly important in the field of direct mass production thanks to the permanent evolution of production capacities and by providing total flexibility on the evolution of parts during production (which is financially/timing constrained in the case of classic injection moulding).
In metal, tackling the series is more complicated with the classic SLM process due to the high post-processing constraints. However, the fairly recent MBJ technique opens up new perspectives for tackling series production on certain types of parts.
Images courtesy of ARRK Prototyping Europe