Together with AddUp, AZO developed a fully automated powder handling and feeding system

Better together:

AZO and AddUp form a successful technology partnership for 3D metal printing

Because the world is made out of raw materials – and gets created completely new through 3D printing.

New raw materials, new technical possibilities bring many opportunities, but also challenges. AZO and AddUp meet these challenges and together they transform them into your opportunities. AddUp is a successful French company that develops, manufactures and distributes 3D metal printers. It was created through a joint venture between Michelin and Fives and is already successful in the 3D printer segment.
Find out more about AddUp
The world is changing - even in raw material automation and manufacturing processes. The only constant: It all starts with your raw materials as the basis of your quality products. But often the properties of these raw materials are extremely different.

Some are true Free Spirits, i.e. difficult to control because they are free-flowing, shooting or dusting. Others are downright Divas and are considered demanding raw materials - highly flammable or explosive. There are also delicate Weaklings that require extremely careful automation because they are fragile or easily segregated. Recalcitrant raw materials are considered to be real Stubborn Brats due to their properties, such as clumping, clinging, poor flow, etc. Finally, this illustrious group is joined by the Meanie: these raw materials are often very special and pose greater challenges to automation. Indeed, Meanies are often abrasive and toxic and therefore dangerous for the equipment and the operator.

3D metal printing: The raw material is the challenge

The metal powder used for the future technology 3D printing, among others, is such a Meanie, for example. It is respirable and is classified as carcinogenic. Therefore, until now, there was no way around introducing the raw material into production without the help of appropriate protective suits - the first challenge for raw material automation. In addition, the applicable explosion protection regulations must be taken into account, because the fine dusts are definitely explosive. The highest safety requirements also apply to the product itself. The metal powder must not come into contact with atmospheric moisture or oxygen. Therefore, inerting of the entire powder handling system during production operation is essential.
Together with AddUp, AZO developed a fully automated powder handling and feeding system
The task of automating this raw material, which AZO had to master here, was correspondingly challenging. Together with AddUp, AZO developed a fully automated powder handling and feeding system that meets the special requirements of the additive manufacturing industry and the use of the different raw materials.

In February 2018, AddUp made the first contact with AZO France. The request was for inert metal powder handling to feed a 3D printer. During a visit to AZO Germany, the technical requirements and possible concepts were discussed. Together with the experts from AddUp, AZO R&D engineers quickly and reliably developed a customer-specific solution. Using a prototype system, the first tests were carried out at the customer's site in October 2018. The results flowed into further development, so that a production-ready powder supply system could be delivered at the beginning of 2019. In the course of further intensive cooperation, the plant modules were continuously and further developed to be adaptable to different printer types supplied by AddUp.
The expectations of the raw material automation and its functions are manifold:
  • On the one hand, the system was to ensure continuous feeding of the printers in order to prevent production downtimes.
  • On the other hand, the feed of the raw material and the discharge of the excess powder, which is generated during the production of the bulk layer, should be considerably simplified.
  • Furthermore, the system was to process the unprocessed excess metal powder, screen it and feed it back into the production process.
  • In addition, the main focus was also on operator safety.
„For the metal powder handling for feeding our 3D printers, we were looking for a partner with whom we could develop the solution that was optimally tailored to us. AZO, as an expert in raw material automation, supplied us with a system that is perfectly adapted to our printers.“

Ludovic Viossat, Supply Chain Manager,  AddUp SAS, France

The different working areas of AZO's powder supply modules

The entire module for supplying the printers can generally be divided into three parts.

Firstly, in the area of material supply and preparation: After delivery from the operator's raw material store, the metal powder is brought to the supply module in small containers, canisters or cans. Via a hermetically sealed and inert GloveBox, the powder is fed by gentle vacuum conveying to a screening module consisting of an ultrasonic screening machine specially developed for metal powder. The GloveBox ensures the highest protection for the raw material, as well as the operator. The result is that the operator does not come into direct contact with this "nasty stuff".

After screening, the raw material is again fed to the printing process in the correct quality, quantity and time using a vacuum conveyor. The system can be flexibly designed for the different raw material properties, number of printers to be supplied and conveying quantities. By using buffer containers, a continuous conveying process for pneumatic feeding of the printer can be ensured for this batch task.

The third area of application for AZO raw material automation is at the printer itself. Here, the raw material is first transferred to the printer module in the required quantity. Excess powder (e.g. overflow material due to stripping of the powder bed) is discharged, collected centrally in a buffer container and pneumatically transported back to the screen module. There, this powder is sieved, processed, and then reintroduced into the production cycle (closed loop). This consistent raw material utilization and recovery not only increases product quality, but also the cost-effectiveness of your entire production process.


From the stand-alone solution to the printing plant

A special feature of these modular systems is their scalability: small systems for feeding a single printer can be implemented just as easily as the collective feeding of entire printing factories.

In the case of AddUp, the system was therefore adapted so that the infeed of the raw material was installed decentralized from the printer. The metal powder is then gently fed to the metering unit via a pneumatic conveyor system. This is located directly at the printer and is thus a component of the printing unit. Here too it is possible to supply only a single printer or to feed several at the same time.

But perfect mechanical design is not the end of the story: nothing works without a sensible, state-of-the-art system control. The control system is based on Codesys - Twincat 3 (Beckhoff) with a web-based and user-friendly visualization. The communication to the 3D printer is realized via Ethercat and a defined interface. All connection lines between the individual modules are designed to be pluggable to enable quick and easy commissioning. During operation, it is also possible to control all functions of the AZO powder module remotely from the 3D printer, which significantly simplifies and saves time during maintenance.

The sensors and actuators within the modules are collected or controlled directly in the field via several IP67-rated IO-Link masters. This means that the controller recognizes which modules are available on the system based on its configuration and automatically activates, or deactivates, the available or unavailable functions.

For safety reasons, if a hot-connect module fails, all affected functions are deactivated and a corresponding message is sent to the 3D printer. All other areas continue to run unhindered. This reduces downtime and helps keep production losses to a minimum.

In summary, AZO offers the following solutions for a wide range of challenges:
  • Continuous production without interruption of the material flow.
  • Customized screening technology for a wide range of particle sizes
  • Explosion protection of the entire system according to current explosion protection guidelines
  • Inert gas and protective gas atmosphere ensures product safety
  • Intelligent control technology and visualization
AZO's systems thus cover the complete internal raw material logistics. From delivery, through processing, to the end product: the entire raw material automation from a single source. Perfectly matched to your raw material and your production.

AZO – We Love Ingredients.