I am writing this from the Additive Manufacturing User Group (AMUG) conference in Orlando. It’s…
by Ron Fisher, Vice President of Business Development Sigma Labs
A recent International Trade Association report on the leading European additive manufacturing (AM) marketplace, stated that “Until two years ago, German firms mainly used AM for prototyping and proof-of-concept applications. In 2019, AM use was expanded…the pandemic made more German firms realize how beneficial the use of AM was when it bridged the gap of broken supply chains.”
The report also noted that quality assurance equipment for AM products is a top priority. At Sigma Labs, we witness these trends of expanded use and emphasis on quality throughout the world. As a company whose entire mission is to set the standard for in-process quality assurance, we couldn’t agree more with the need for consistently achieving higher levels of quality, especially in environments where multiple classes/brands of 3D metal printers exist.
The average AM lifecycle progresses through multiple stages, beginning with R&D prototyping before moving into part qualification – with the goal of achieving a large-scale and efficient production operation. In-process quality assurance (IPQA) enables this because it has been demonstrated by numerous third parties to provide a superior ROI for AM operations.
In the above chart, the critical zone for in-process quality assurance comes into scale as you advance into production. This is true because, while it is generally acknowledged that post-process quality control is a requirement for ensuring that parts are manufactured to meet high-quality specifications, post-process quality control is actually very time consuming, expensive, and, in many cases, destructive to parts.
That is why a requirement for third-party and machine-agnostic, standards-based in-process quality assurance is critical for individual manufacturers and for the industry as a whole. As W. Edwards Deming put it, “Inspection does not improve the quality, nor guarantee quality. Inspection is too late. The quality, good or bad, is already in the product.” Harold F. Dodge stated this even more succinctly, “You cannot inspect quality into a product.”
Echoing the words of Deming and Dodge, inspection is indeed often too late. The quality of the part is either good or bad at that point in time. By adopting an in-process quality approach, manufacturers have the flexibility to act during the process in three key ways:
- Stopping the process if you identify problems.
- Adjusting the process in real-time — such as turning off one part or multiple parts on a build plate if an individual part is experiencing unacceptable conditions.
- Segregating parts or batching suspect parts and good parts to route them through different quality control requirements at the end of the process.
The above list is a small sampling of the control afforded to manufacturers by leveraging an in-process quality approach during the additive lifecycle. This in-process approach can garner other significant economic benefits, including:
- Faster product-development cycle time due to reduced trial and error.
- Faster part qualification saving significant amounts of time and money.
- Minimizes waste through non-destructive inspection and the ability to stop bad builds in process.
- Maximizes machine time because you can stop processes when defects are detected, and you have fewer trial and error builds.
- Reduces post-production processing costs due to dramatically reduced need for CT scans of final parts and perform non-destructive testing.
Keep in mind that quality is a key driver, and not just a by-product, of the growth of the additive manufacturing industry. At Sigma Labs, we are committed to working with standards organizations, universities, printer manufacturers, and others to raise the additive manufacturing quality bar. We call this Radical Collaboration and it is a philosophy and practice that keeps everyone from our engineers to the C-suite busy and motivated.