If there was one message that summed up the current mind-set of the additive manufacturing industry at this year’s Formnext, it was perhaps best said by Evolve Additive CEO, Steve Chillscyzn during a press conference on the company’s new STEP (Selective Thermoplastic Electrophotographic Process) 3D printing technology.
Put simply: “We can’t do this alone, no one can.”
Chillscyzn, the inventor of STEP, was talking about the trend for collaboration in an industry where partnerships are being penned thick and fast as vendors conclude pooling together expertise is the most effective way to move the entire sector forward. Chillscyzn, with Evolve, is putting that into practice as the Minnesota-headquartered company continues to amass partners and investors across automation, software and materials which are helping build out the company’s unique additive technology into what it believes to be a true manufacturing production solution.
“Evolve really brings that first additive manufacturing capability that’s truly hands-free from a file creation all the way to support removal,” Chillscyzn tells TCT. “It’s really a hands-free technology and because our systems are all done under closed loop control, all of the key process parameters are actually monitored and logged. So you can get a digital footprint of what that part looks like both thermally and from an image perspective and serial number perspective. The biggest thing that we’re doing, besides embedding all of this closed loop control into our system is we’re partnering with people who are the industry experts with industry 4.0. to garner that relationship and that credibility.”
Evolve spun out from Stratasys in 2018 following nearly a decade of development. Amongst those initial partners are Siemens which is bringing its know-how on the software side; Rockwell Automation with its focus on smart manufacturing; and Evonik, which earlier this year announced plans to co-formulate thermoplastic materials for use in STEP. Fuelling its leap to commercialisation, Evolve is also backed by major names like LEGO Brand Group which led a 19 million USD equity investment last year along with Stanley Black and Decker and an undisclosed investor. The weight of those names and the significance of those partners is not going unnoticed, as the feedback at Formnext showed.
“The response we got was, I think, above and beyond any of our expectations,” Chillscyzn said, “The response that we got from both parts, the part quality and the capabilities that we offer, and what was very wonderful to see and to be part of, is our vision and mission, that we’re headed entirely towards production scale, not prototyping, or saying we’re going to do production, but yet we’re a prototyper. People saw what we’re doing, people understood the risks that we’re taking to do that, and they really appreciate what we’re about.”
The technology is called Selective Thermoplastic Electrophotographic Process or STEP for short. It uses production-grade thermoplastics and is said to be 10 times faster than high speed sintering, allowing for the rapid manufacture of multi-material, multi-colour end-use parts. STEP works via a belt system in which material particles are transferred from the belt to a build area, layer by layer, to transform the material from a sintered to a fused state. Harking back to that “hands-free” setup, all ancillary equipment is embedded right into the machine, except for an additional post-processing system which enables the automated removal of soluble supports. The technology, pitted as the first viable alternative to injection moulding, has been built to address five pillars that Evolve discovered early on were high on the wish lists of many manufacturers they talked to: speed, materials, scalability, quality and cost.
“The big element of uniqueness is that we actually offer all five pillars without compromise,” Chillscyzn explained. “So, it’s speed or throughput, it’s materials and material breadth, it’s quality of the part equalling injection moulding, scalability of the technology, and of course, the price per part that’s competitive with traditional manufacturing. These are the five pillars that Evolve lives on and we don’t compromise any of five to get anyone. This is what I believe is unique to Evolve and in the industry.”
Evolve made its debut at Formnext with its first machine – the SVP (Scalable Volume Production). The first round of alpha systems have already been out in the field for over a year with multiple running full eight hour shifts back at Evolve’s facility, producing parts for potential customers. With results that Chillscyzn reports were better than anticipated, the rest of the company’s attention has been placed on application and product development as it gears up for beta testing and commercialisation in 2020. Orders have already begun, and Chillscyzn adds confidently that the technology is “absolutely ready to go.”
Where is the technology ready to go to exactly? Though no names have seen revealed so far, STEP has received strong interest in the consumer product industry do its ability to quickly manufacture custom parts, and in engineering where the ability to use real engineering thermoplastics is proving popular in the manufacture of complex, lightweight parts for electric vehicles. But the overall target for this technology isn’t a specific vertical, it is about facilitating real manufacturing.
“It was all built around the application of manufactured end-use parts,” Chillscyzn said. “I don’t believe that there’s a solution out there that gives you the five pillars that can produce end-use parts at scale. There was nothing out there until STEP and that’s what it was developed for. The whole reason for spending all of the money and all the time to develop it was around these parts and we’ve never wavered from that. That’s our mission today.”
The leap to additive is no easy manoeuvre for a traditional manufacturing company. You have to understand how to design for additive, what materials can be process, the best way to finish your parts. Evolve aims to make that as seamless as possible, first by enabling manufacturers to use materials they are already using today. “The same materials you’re getting out of Evonik, the same materials you’re getting out of BASF, Dow Chemical, these are the same materials that we print with,” Chillscyzn said. The second part is from a software standpoint whereby through working with partners like Siemens and opting out of proprietary software, STEP can be integrated with software solutions they are currently familiar with and using today.
Chillscyzn adds: “Our vision is to have these machines sitting right alongside their existing platforms. It’s not, revamp your entire manufacturing floor with STEP based equipment. It’s, keep your manufacturing floor doing you right. Just start embedding STEP based equipment immediately, giving you much more capability than you have today.”
The SVP platform is just the first part of Evolve’s commercialisation roadmap. More systems will come in time that will scale higher up into more manufacturing capabilities including the ability to eventually embed features such as electronics mid-part.
“What we’re going to be opening up is the versatility of taking the layer or the part mid build and actually being able to insert other objects into it, making a part much more valuable than just a hunk of plastic. This is where our technology is going.”
The industry has grown a lot in Evolve’s 10 years in development. The desire for production and smart manufacturing solutions is greater than ever and there are many companies, several on the show floor at Formnext, talking about additive finally being at a point of industrialisation. Chillscyzn would argue that STEP is the first technology, with its key five focus areas, that actually delivers on those promises around additive manufacturing on real manufacturing floors.
“I would say in my discussions with a lot of the Fortune 500 and even some of the smaller companies, really trying to trying to get technology that actually meets all of these five pillars, something that everyone’s hungry for, but no one can do today. The industry is waiting for something that can actually deliver. It’s of course going to take time and going to take, I think, a few leaders sort of plough forward and we believe our investors that we have today are some of the leaders in the industry. This is where we have to go help our customers develop out applications and build that trust, customer by customer to allow them to bank on the fact that these machines are capable and the yields that you’re getting out of these machines are predictable and expected.
He concludes: “The industry has been waiting for something like STEP to happen. So [additive manufacturing has] been progressing but progressing very slowly and more in boutique manufacturing ways, not mainstream end-use parts. That’s where STEP comes in.”