Maintaining the digital thread – from augmented 3D printing to blockchain


Most devices in the world are connected. You can login to Netflix on your smartphone, watch an episode of The Walking Dead, switch to your smart TV the next day and pick up right where you left off. You might book a flight, check in and store an electronic version of your boarding pass in your mobile wallet which is updated in real-time by the airline to let you know when your gate has been announced (or, more likely, when your flight has been delayed). This past weekend I smugly managed to beat the ten-deep bar queue at my local Wetherspoon by ordering from my table using an app and funds from my PayPal account – a minor victory that exemplifies how digital threads are changing how we operate.

In the context of additive manufacturing (AM), a supposedly smart, automated manufacturing technology, that level of connectivity is not quite there, yet. The design portion is digital, pre-processing software helps translate CAD files to a 3D printing format whilst retaining data. That data is passed on to the machine where the ideal print environment is selected, often without much user interference thanks to intelligent optimised print parameters. Once the print is finished you might perform some form of post-processing task such polishing or grinding but typically, that’s where the digital thread ends. As Industry 4.0 promises smart industrial workflows consisting of digital twins, automated factory floors and cloud connectivity, how do we ensure that data-rich digital thread continues throughout the lifecycle of an AM part?

Augmented 3D printing

Boston-based 3D printing company, Rize may have a solution. The company launched its Rize One 3D printer back in 2016 offering multi-material printing capabilities for the desktop. At the Additive Manufacturing Users Group conference earlier this year, the company announced it was taking that technology a step further with something called Augmented Polymer Deposition (APD), combining extrusion and material jetting to bridge the virtual and real-world gap.

“The model is in a digital world as it moves from the CAD or design tool into the pre-processing software and then into the machine,” Andy Kalambi, President and CEO of Rize Inc. told TCT at the launch. “But the moment the part gets printed on the machine, it’s a physical part and there is no more digital element.”

The idea is to allow engineers and designers to embed additional functionality into parts to eliminate risk of human error and common problems such as piracy. For example, engineers can use the Rize One’s voxel-level capabilities to print a QR code into the part that can be scanned on a smartphone to provide digital information. This could be essential data about the part itself, how to assemble it or maybe even a code to view the part in a virtual reality environment.

“The moment you create a mediation, you are creating a possibility of error or risk. The QR code is just one example that we tried out and it was very successful,” Kalambi added. “It enables AM and especially the physical part to be connected into that whole digital work stream which involves CAD, PLM, sometimes even IOT, all of that. It looks simple but it’s very profound because it suddenly makes the part come alive.”

The overall aim is create an “appliance user experience” which Kalambi likens to the way Uber has changed the way we travel. You’re connected to a pool of local drivers with access to their profiles, you know when the car will show up and your receipts are stored handily in an app using a cashless system – the act of taking a taxi hasn’t changed but the user experience has. Rize wants to do the same for 3D printing by having all of that information available as part of an inclusive and connected user experience which will ultimately save engineers time and energy when a part lands in their hands.

Blockchain

Founded primarily as a way of securing information for cryptocurrencies, blockchain technology is becoming increasingly relevant to industries and businesses that require protection and security for their digital assets. In a first for AM, LINK3D has introduced the integration of blockchain technology for AM in its flagship SaaS product, Digital Factory.

The AM software solutions company believes the need for file integrity and traceability is a priority for AM processes to ensure that the digital thread continues once a part is either sent from the designer or comes off the print bed.

“3D Printing enables digitisation of manufacturing, which has a lot of benefits,” Vishal Singh LINK3D CTO told TCT. “This also introduces the challenges of the digital world, especially: security, IP protection, tampering of parts, and hacking of advanced manufacturing machines. Furthermore, the digital manufacturing supply chain enables on-demand and distributed manufacturing brings together several participating stakeholders. Digitisation creates security challenges, especially with stakeholders, so maintaining a secure and auditable digital thread for the 3D printing workflow is now more critical than ever.”

LINK3D proposes the software will be particularly beneficial to service bureaux who will be able to receive orders based on their capabilities and pre-verified orders. Prints can be traced in real-time, logging data from machines which can be stored safely and accessed for traceability checks. Once the part is printed and shipped, the package can also be tracked to ensure it is opened by the intended recipient.

“It can be used for managing recalls and forensics, if something went wrong with some parts, the batch or lot number can be isolated and the root cause can be identified – be it be machine parameters or material details or some other details,” Singh continues. “Beyond production, supply chain and logistics aspects also need to be tracked to ensure the parts are delivered to correct destinations in an untampered way.”

LINK3D claims blockchain integration can help AM to become more accessible to designers, manufacturers and supply chain representatives as a necessary tool for validation and trust in a decentralised manufacturing ecosystem.

Singh adds: “Unifying the digital thread in 3D printing is a necessity to enable 100% replicability of printed parts.”

Over in San Francisco, another software provider Identify3D is working to enable the digital thread by providing security, manufacturing repeatability and traceability throughout the digital manufacturing process.

At RAPID + TCT in April, Identify3D claimed it wants to become “the shipping container for digital manufacturing”. What that means is, whilst everyone is familiar with the humble cargo box, unless you packed it or are the recipient, you have no idea what’s inside. Identify3D thinks of secure zip files in a similar vain. They can be packed with part and manufacturing information but only users with a specified license will be able to access it.

“Identify3D has developed a software solution that protects engineering and design data using the highest encryption standards and a system of licensing to ensure only authorised parties have access to the data they need to produce parts under specific manufacturing rules,” Stephan Thomas, Co-founder & CSO of Identify3D explained. “By enabling a secure digital thread that tracks the design, manufacturing, and deployment of parts along the digital supply chain, Identify3D provides customers with the exact knowledge of how, when, where, and by whom a part has been manufactured.”

With its Trace capabilities, Identify3D keeps a log of all information as it moves through the supply chain. Design and engineering data is protected from the get-go and teams can manage who can access their manufacturing files and even how many times. This can provide information such as how the file is to be manufactured and once it becomes a physical entity, can be traced all the way to the end user to ensure IP control and authenticity. 

“The digital thread is what connects the flow of data from conception through the production and maintenance of a part. This requires interoperability between the systems that transmit and manage design and manufacturing data, creating huge vulnerabilities for cyberattacks on digital interfaces,” Thomas adds. “If the digital thread is not maintained or secured, it will compromise the integrity and traceability of the digital manufacturing flow resulting in increased risk of counterfeit, maliciously modified, poor quality, or uncertified parts from entering the physical supply chain.”

Some of the biggest AM players are already on board with the likes of SLM Solutions, Renishaw and EOS partnering with the start-up and more are in development including several pilot deployments with Fortune 500 companies.

Post-printing

For most AM applications, the process does not end as soon as the part comes off the print bed. Parts require an element of post-processing but typically that means the digital link has already been broken when conventional finishing processes come in. AM post-processing solutions provider, PostProcess Technologies is looking to tackle that with its recently launched CONNECT3D software.

“Managing the life-cycle of subtractively manufactured parts is a well-established process. Additive manufactured parts have the opportunity and advantage to do so digitally and end-to-end,” Marc Farfaglia, Engineering Manager at PostProcess. “Moving additive manufacturing from prototyping into a production atmosphere requires tried and true management of the entire process … without it, continuous improvement is a guess and check game, and optimal operational and economic efficiencies cannot be achieved.”

Linking this data can be critical to the entire workflow, effecting decisions early in the design process such as part orientation and placement of supports right through to the post-printing step. Building on the company’s AUTOMAT3D software which enables intelligent removal of support materials, CONNECT3D is a cloud connected software that addresses the full manufacturing thread from design to post-processing, learning from itself along the way, to deliver more consistent, final parts using smart removal of support material and surface finishing.

The software enables users of PostProcess’ hardware to leverage native CAD formats to automatically define the desired algorithms for post-printing in a range of metal and polymer materials.

Farfaglia added: “With the PostProcess CONNECT3D platform, the user can have all of the information carried with the part through the whole AM process through to the final post-print step, so that they can make informed decisions on what processes the part needs to go through to get the final desired end finish to be truly customer-ready.”

Modern lives are intertwined by digital threads and whilst that constant exposure to data can have both positive and negative implications, for AM to fulfil its promise as an integral cog in the factories of the future, a strong digital thread will be key to its implementation. It’s no longer just about having a machine in place and suddenly you’re on the cutting edge. Rather, developments like this where manufacturers are examining the nitty gritty of everything else that happens around the print itself, will help users to get the most out of the technology from that initial idea all the way through to delivery. 





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