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Effectively implementing 3D printing in a production environment requires software tools for design, simulation, pre-processing, distribution, manufacturing, inspection, and quality. Printer manufacturers (OEMs) provide software with their printers, but it often does not include all the functionality necessary for industrial scale additive manufacturing (AM). This post covers the different categories of 3D printing software, how they fit together in an AM workflow, and the leading companies providing commercially available solutions.
The 3D printing software workflow starts with design and ends with final quality approval. In between are many (not always consecutive) steps including simulation, processing, printing, inspection, and data analysis. The diagram directly above highlights the major categories of software tools used along the 3D printing working flow. We will examine them one at a time.
Computer-aided design (CAD) software is used by engineers and designers to digitally define a part’s 3-dimensional geometry. In most cases, the CAD software used to design parts for 3D printing is the same used for conventional manufacturing. Companies which produce CAD software include Dassault Systemes, Siemens, PTC, and Autodesk. For certain applications, AM specific design software is used to generate surfaces and structures which are optimized for 3D printing. Examples of such geometries include complex lattices, hollow features, and digital textures. Some of the companies which produce AM focused CAD tools are Materialise, nTopology, and Zverse.
There is a special class of design software referred to as “generative design” or “topology optimization” (GD/TO) which optimizes part geometry to achieve a desired performance given a defined loading scenario, boundary conditions, and design constraints. This software relies upon iterative computer simulations to refine the part geometry, combining CAD design rules with simulations from computer-aided engineering (CAE) tools. Leading providers of GD/TO software include Altair, Autodesk, and Paramatters.
According to Siemens, “Computer-aided engineering (CAE) is the use of computer software to simulate performance in order to improve product designs or assist in the resolution of engineering problems… including simulation, validation and optimization of products, processes, and manufacturing tools”. In the case of 3D printing, CAE is not only used to optimize design, as we mentioned above, but also to optimize the manufacturing process itself. Due to the complex physics involved in 3D printing there are many potential sources of quality issues which CAE software can help to mitigate. Subsegments of CAE include finite element analysis (FEA) which analyzes structural and thermal behaviors, and computational fluid dynamics (CFD) for analyzing fluid flow. FEA and CFD are both critical in modeling and optimizing AM processes. Leading companies providing CAE software include Ansys, Additiveflow, and Flow3D (video below) which specializes in fluid and thermal analyses.
Above: L-PBF process simulation software/Video Credit: Flow3D/YouTube
In addition to their use in improving overall print quality, CAE tools serve an important role in helping to optimize parameters such as print speed and energy and material inputs – important factors in the economics of 3D printing. CAD and CAE together provide the foundational data needed to perform the subsequent step of developing the manufacturing instructions for the printer.
Computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) is the use of software to control manufacturing equipment such as machine tools. CAM software takes CAD and CAE data as inputs and creates machine instructions (g-code) which program manufacturing equipment to perform an exact process. When “setting up a build” in CAM software, there are five key steps involved:
- Determine Part Orientation:
The best way to orient a part within the build depends on a variety of factors such as accuracy and surface finish requirements, process physics, support structures, and optimal nesting (see below). CAM can suggest optimal orientations but usually requires user input.
- Support Generation
There are many different approaches to supporting a part. The optimal support structure depends on its geometry, the process, material, and other variables. This step is largely automated in most CAM software.
- Near-net-shape Expansion
For near-net-shape processes and applications, additional material (“stock”) is often defined in CAM to be added to surfaces with high surface finish and accuracy requirements. The stock material is removed through post-processes like machining.
Some 3D printing processes can accommodate printing many parts at once, distributed across the print plate and even stacked in the z-axis. CAM software helps to nest parts in order to maximize the number of parts per build without sacrificing the quality which is impacted by the build layout.
- Slicing and Toolpath Generation
Once all the above steps are complete and any custom print parameters selected, CAM software generates g-code which is sent to the printer to perform the printing process.
Almost all printers come “out of the box” with CAM software from the OEM that includes the basic functionality needed to operate the equipment. More advanced industrial AM users typically leverage 3rd party processing tools for more control and efficiency. This stand-alone CAM software can prove beneficial in processing computationally demanding, complex, high-resolution builds. It also allows the use of one API with a fleet of different 3D printing equipment. Tools such as Netfab (Autodesk), Magics (Materialise), and Dyndrite are popular for these purposes.
Manufacturing workflow software has been used for decades in conventional supply chains. Categories of this software include manufacturing execution systems (MES), enterprise resource planning (ERP), and product lifecycle management (PLM). The most advanced industrial AM operators also use workflow software to help manage large fleets of different printers across multiple production locations. In these scenarios, AM workflows must be tightly integrated to the whole, extended supply chain. Some of the large, established CAD software providers (referenced above) as well as supply chain software companies like SAP are increasing their investment in AM specific functionality and AM integration to existing MESs, ERPs, and PLMs. Startups like Linked3D, 3yourmind, and Oqton have developed software focused specifically on AM supply chain workflows.
QA & Security
Successfully scaling AM supply chains demands robust quality controls like process monitoring, inspection, and traceability. These quality controls are achieved by integrating process monitoring data tools, measurement and inspection software used by metrology and testing equipment, and relevant ERP data for complete traceability. Examples of companies providing these software solutions are Hexagon, Nikon, and DNAam.
Securing AM supply chains and all their associated data is another important software requirement. Protecting designs, process parameters, IP, trade secrets, and other proprietary information requires end-to-end data management and encryption. Additionally, to safely leverage AM for de-centralized, just-in-time manufacturing, companies have developed security software to prevent the proliferation of parts that don’t meet quality standards, or which were not authorized to be produced in the first place. LEO Lane, Identify3D, and Authentise are some of the companies that have developed software solutions filling this need.
Printer OEM Software
As previously mentioned, industrial printers are packaged with machine-specific software addressing some, but rarely all, of the critical needs in 3D printing production workflows. Almost all OEM software is designed for the OEM’s specific printers and is not compatible across a broad range of equipment. For this reason, OEM specific software, despite some of it being quite impressive, was omitted from this analysis. This post focuses on standalone software solutions that are broadly useful and not specific to a narrow range of printing processes, equipment, applications, or materials.
The Future of 3D Printing Software
As the above diagram illustrates, the 3D printing software landscape is large, complex and fragmented. Many companies and products compete, overlapping in functionality. To make matters more confusing, many partnerships exist that integrate multiple products with complementary features. This creates an even greater array of potential workflow solutions. Additionally, many of the above companies – especially in the processing, workflow, and QA & security categories – are relatively new. Taken together, all these factor create a high potential for consolidation in the future of the 3D printing software industry. This will most likely come about through acquisitions by the large, incumbent CAD and ERP/MES/PLM companies. We believe this should be net positive for the consumer and the AM industry as a whole.
Regardless of the future shape of the 3D printing landscape, software will continue to be a critical element in moving the industry forward. Many of the technical challenges facing 3D printing – design optimization, process consistency, part quality, print speed – are, at least in part, addressed and improved with software. At the end of the day, one of the key advantages of additive manufacturing is that it is a fundamentally digital process. This means it is only as good as the software which it is running on – and there are many sophisticated 3D printing software companies working tirelessly to ensure its advancement. Continued investment and maturation of 3D printing software will help increase AM’s competitiveness with established, conventional supply chains.