For over a decade Michael Fischer developed industrial process systems as a design engineer for W.L. Gore. Today he is the Electrical Design Lead at ExOne and responsible for the recipe management system in the machines, the software interface, as well as the development of our newest industrial binder jetting platforms, the S-Max® Pro and X1 160ProTM.
His experience in industrial processes is key for overcoming the perception of additive manufacturing as a technology for PhD’s and cementing it as an option for mass production. “As 3D printers become more industrial and print jobs are running without anybody in front of the machine, downtime and failed builds become costly or unacceptable,” Fischer said. When asked about the ultimate goal of additive manufacturing software, he says “If you have an algorithm, a technology to recognize a problem and provide the right reaction to solve the problem, and you can successfully print the job to the end.” But to get to that holy grail he also recognizes the groundwork that must be laid, the data that must be collected.
When we analyze the process itself and the data behind it, then we can identify the software solution to bring the process to the next level.
Electrical Design Lead
One part of Fischer’s job is to focus on the day-to-day operation of the process, which requires striking a balance between the scientific nature of additive manufacturing machines and the requirements of a production setting. “The “problem” we have with 3D printing is that we have so many parameters – and most of them are important for the process,” Fischer stated, explaining how machines in an R&D department will have a different focus than those in a process environment. “Engineers want all the data with buttons and blinking lights, we think, ‘yeah, that’s cool!’ But a production customer, no, they want ease of operation and repetition of results.”
To balance these needs his team at ExOne developed a recipe management system. It provides a backend where engineers can pull all the levers provided by the flexibility of binder jetting and optimize the recipe for their specific powder-binder combinations to deliver consistent results. Developed in partnership with ExOne or by an in-house engineering team, customers then have the ability to send data to printers with the recipe embedded. “It’s built for a complete factory of the future with an industrial focus on automating and sending data to a hall of printers, or to any location,” Fischer said.
Fischer incorporates engineer settings together with a smooth interface for efficient machine operation
Yet, at the machine level the software must be intuitive for daily production floor functions. A modern interface allows for efficient operation of the machine without access to production parameters or critical variables. And to close the data loop, Fischer notes how the data collected on print jobs and their parameters allows engineering departments to compare results, stating, “You can do better process engineering and process validating with recipe management because you have historical data of all the parameters that you can export or share with other locations.” It also paves the way for Industry 4.0 integration.
Being more interconnected to the entire manufacturing process was the reasoning behind Fischer leading the switch of ExOne production systems to a Siemens platform. He explains how they offer software solutions to bookend the binder jetting process – to create parts and evaluate CAD files before printing and to analyze the parts afterwards. “There is a complete line that we can close with our printer technology to work in one environment provided by a major global player,” Fischer stated. Integrating into the MindSphere® solution, for example, allows customers to monitor their machines in real-time or receive push notifications through an app.
But key for Industry 4.0 is data, and it’s this focus on collecting data that feeds the other half of Fischer’s development role. By analyzing historical data to get a better understanding of the process, he is working to create next-generation systems. “When we analyze the process itself and the data behind it, then we can identify the software solution to bring the process to the next level,” Fischer said.
The largest, most advanced metal system, the X1 160Pro, was developed with complete digital integration from the beginning. Fischer’s team creates a digital twin with commissioning and the mechanical kinematics allow them to see physical results in a virtual environment. This provides a virtual machine to create new software, test updates, or troubleshoot on. The next step is progressing to an AI camera system within the printer. He explains how a system that not only monitors the powder bed and collects data but can then identify the problem and self-correct is the ultimate goal for production systems but cautions on the need for patience – and data collection. “An algorithm must learn through data – the more you have the smoother, faster, and more accurate it will run. The worst thing would be to let a machine make a wrong reaction about the algorithm, so we need to understand every aspect of the process first by collecting production data,” Fischer explained.
With the company’s sand 3D printers already used in production settings, Fischer is able to pool knowledge between product lines. Learning from data already collected on production sand machines, his team is applying that understanding to create one ecosystem for the ExOne binder jetting technology.
And Fischer is excited about building that infrastructure for the future of binder jetting. “The technology is only 20 years old – this is nothing. Our experience is only at the beginning and you can develop it in many ways. We’re really focused on new technologies and new processes that bring it to the next level,” Fischer concluded.